You can take a French boy out of France, but you can’t take France out of the French boy. Usually — but this time, the formula doesn’t apply, because nifty French romance “Heartbreaker” has all the trappings à la Française but ends up being a glossily plasticized Hollywood-style product.
Director Pascal Chaumeil may have based the story on a French novel (“L’Arnacoeur”) and called in resident heartthrob-cum-Gallic-brood-artist Romain Duris (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “Paris”) to man the guns, but despite his best intentions, “Heartbreaker” feels like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston could appear at any minute (and in fact, the film is already slated for an American remake). From the frame compositions to the dialog to the more than frequent allusions to Wham! and “Dirty Dancing,” this isn’t a mere flirt. It’s an obsession.
Accordingly, Duris never gets the opportunity to immerse himself in his signature ennui, though his trademark three-day (or four- or five-day) stubble and skinny, French Paradox physique are deployed to full advantage.
He plays Alex, whose chosen profession is a combination of deceit, charm and chivalry. Along with his perky sister, Mélanie, (Julie Ferrier) and her husband, Marc (François Damiens), Alex takes on assignments that involve breaking up a would-be-unhappy couple, thereby saving the woman from future heartbreak.
Alex goes by several personal codes of honor: Never sleep with the woman in question, never fall in love with her and make sure she’s genuinely unhappy before stepping in to break up the relationship.
The first 15 minutes of “Heartbreaker” is fun — Alex and co. disguise themselves as chefs and waiters and construction workers to drop hints to women who aren’t really confident about tying the knot. “Move on,” Alex tells one such femme. “There are so many more fish in the ocean.” Trite, but sometimes a woman needs to hear such a thing out loud to help her come to her senses.
Alex is paid handsomely for his work, but what with his massive overheads he’s always being chased by creditors and hardly has time to do stuff like suck on Gauloise cigarettes and sip wine for hours — two acts at which Duris’ characters have always excelled in the past.
Alex is stumped when a tycoon asks him to destroy the relationship between his heiress daughter, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), and a British investment banker. “He’ll bore you to tears!” says Dad, and the audience couldn’t agree more. But Juliette is less than scintillating herself. Alex’s recon results show that she listens to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and loves bopping to the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack. What else is she interested in? Not much, and Alex thinks he’ll have an easy time of it.
He shows up in Monaco (where the lady is entirely preoccupied in a prenuptial shopping spree) under the guise of chauffeur/bodyguard whom Daddy has hired. Now all he has to do is load up the car stereo with Wham! and then show her some serious dance moves under an orange moon. But in the meantime, Alex discovers two inconvenient truths: 1) Juliette is genuinely in love with her betrothed. 2) Alex himself has fallen head over heels in love with Juliette.
The burning question at this point is in regard to 2). How could a vibrant, energetic, smart, funny guy like Alex fall for someone as motionless and expressionless as Juliette? She needs to be fed a large steak frites, or at least get some sun on her frighteningly white body. The more Alex tries to get her to see that life with a boring guy steeped in money and privilege is actually no life at all, the more she seems to retreat into a terrain called catatonia.
But then this is Vanessa Paradis — reigning at the summit of French pop culture since her teens, former girlfriend of Lenny Kravitz and long-time partner of Johnny Depp. Her kick-ass pedigree assures that if there’s any moving (or emoting) to be done, it sure as hell ain’t going to be her. In a story where everyone else is hell-bent on getting in touch with their inner American, Juliette remains stubbornly French — like finding a croissant on the menu at a Paris branch of McDonald’s.