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‘Broken English’

A fairy-tale chick flick

by Kaori Shoji

Zoe Cassavetes’ first feature film, “Broken English,” hovers expertly between the realm of total credibility and urban fairy-tale for chicks, the kind of story you’re likely to hear from a girlfriend over lunch about someone in her office who hasn’t had a date in two whole years and wham! She met THE ONE! Ta-da! It almost sounds too good to be true, but then who wants to check over the facts? The important thing is that such stuff happens. Energized and uplifted, you finish lunch and go back to work.

Cassavetes, now being heralded as the next Sofia Coppola (the production notes say they’re close friends) comes from true-blue stock in American cinema; the daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, who grew up calling Ben Gazzara “Uncle Ben.” One Sunday when she was about 3, she went down to the living room to watch cartoons and there her parents were, in the midst of making “Woman Under the Influence” (1974), Cassavetes’ powerful, painfully honest work about madness and love.

Like her dad and brother Nick (also a director), Cassavetes knows how to deploy the talents of her mother and trusted friends — and “Broken English” has that relaxed, comfortable buzz of something that was made among loved ones. It wasn’t made in the Cassavetes living room, but it sure could have been.

Broken English
Rating
Director Zoe Cassavetes
Run Time 98 minutes
Language English

Cassavetes’ good friend and American indies icon Parker Posey (“The Sweetest Thing”) stars as Nora, a mid-30s Manhattanite working as concierge at a posh boutique hotel. The opening scene of Nora prepping herself for a party (the wedding anniversary of her best friend) says everything about her current life: overworked, lonely and fragile from stress, she can’t get through the process of dressing and putting on makeup without fortifying herself with wine throughout. At the party, Nora stands there with a tight little smile as her mom (Gena Rowlands) asks when she’s going to find a man to marry — “The good ones get snapped up so quickly!” It’s a dire but pretty standard predicament for single professional women, and inside of two minutes Nora begins to look exhausted.

Nora’s other predicament is that well-meaning people set her up with “really nice guys” who aren’t really nice. Especially harrowing is a scene between Nora and an eligible dude — after going to the movies, they run into his ex, whereupon he confesses that he’s still not over her. What’s a woman to do but smile and tell him not to worry, it’s OK? Talk about heart-wrenching.

But the fates of dating give Nora a big break when she meets Julien from Paris (France’s long-standing heartthrob Melvil Poupaud) at an otherwise boring party. He’s younger, exotically cute and passionate without being obnoxious, which both delights and unsettles Nora. True to her background, education and social status, Nora wants to know “what this means” and whether “this is going anyplace.” Julien, the typical French guy with no hang-ups (he’s even OK with wearing the same T-shirt three days in a row in summertime Manhattan) can filter out the noise of American relationship-speak and just enjoy her company.

Then the stage shifts from New York to Paris, as Julien goes home and Nora flies out to the City of Lights to try and track him down. This is where the fairy-tale factor gets a little out of hand but Cassavetes shows an ingrained, mature restraint that saves the story from getting silly and Nora from losing a hard-earned, single-woman’s dignity. In the world of chick flicks, that’s nothing short of a mighty accomplishment.