DVD: Parker Posey in 'Broken English'

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It’s impossible to follow American independent film over the past 15 years or so and not have built up a healthy level of familiarity with Parker Posey, an actress who over the years – as a Party Girl, a Jackie O. poseur, an obsessed dog exhibitor – to her detriment, has been firmly pigeonholed as a bit of a sideshow. There’s often a metaphorical donning of the clown shoes and makeup when Parker is asked to turn in a performance. Very few simmering moments – it’s almost always “On”, rarely moody, even less frequently muted.

She’s nothing if not a prolific actress. Does she suffer from a lack of selectivity when it comes to roles? Or from having too many friends in the business to appease? Who was talking in her ear when there was an option to not skinny dip with Danny DeVito in a lagoon pool?

And then there’s Broken English, written and directed by first-timer Zoe Cassavetes. Parker headlines as Nora, a guest services director in a posh Manhattan hotel. She’s at the period where single friends become married friends. She’s stuck in the background, feeling the pressure to settle down – maybe not because it’s something she needs, but something that feels age appropriate. There’s a string of dead-end dates, one being a standout turn from Justin Theroux, who as a mohawked, self-absorbed movie star, does much of the heavy lifting to deliver the film’s funniest sequences . Though this has been tagged a romantic comedy, it should be noted there are darker moments here. There’s vulnerability and desperation that you’d not be inclined to expect from your star. Drea de Matteo chimes in advice as Nora’s closest married friend, as does Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes mother, just one half of her oft noted lineage) as Nora’s mother. Enter Julien (Melvil Poupaud), a sweet-talking Frenchman visiting the States for a short time, long enough to almost sweep the habitually skeptic Nora off her feet. Once he heads back to France, Nora comes to the conclusion that he has some of whatever it is that she’s been looking for, and the chase is on.

While critics have generally been handing out satisfactory marks for Zoe Cassavetes first directorial outing, there’s an overall sense of disappointment with what we’re faced with in the third act: with all of the previous thumbing of the nose towards romantic comedy conventions up to a point, we find ourselves on the streets of Paris on a man-hunt, with a handful of Lost in Translation trappings thrown in. Some tracks from Air or My Bloody Valentine would seem appropriate. Things get muddied. Old Hollywood compromises happen. Before Sunset cribbing happens.

The thing that Cassavetes get so right though, that so many Christopher Guest also-rans with Parker on their call sheets haven’t had the prerogative or balls to pull off in the past – was for once, to just roll Posey out un-caricatured. Though a well-off Manhattanite won’t pass for everywoman, her neuroses are relatively commonplace. There are few cheap or easy laughs. The comedy is eased, rather than crammed in. In fact, by design, you’ll feel more compellled to feel sorry for Nora than laugh at her. This is Posey in a lonesome role that you’d expect for entirely someone else.

A thirty-something single woman is a clich├ęd indie staple in itself, but this one in particular comes across with such earnestness, like an unhinging has taken place, like an actress has been allowed to cut the histrionics and piss-takes and bullshit, and just roll around in a role for a good long while, maybe for the first time. The crafting of Broken English is nothing to sneeze at, but – just for the surprise factor and very capable handling of the starring role alone – the film marks an above-par directorial debut for Cassavetes, and a career performance for Posey.

Available on DVD now. Broken English trailer.

Also recommended this week:
Dexter, Season 1

The Michael Haneke Collection

Posted by Ted Zee on August 24th 2007 | Home Page | 7 Comments Subscribe to this site's feed

7 Responses

  1. Karina Says:

    Good post. I think that this films has been done a disservice by its trailer, which leads you to expect “Sex and the City”-style lightweight romantic dramedy. I can’t give Z.C. a pass on the Before Sunset problem, but I do think the ending is darker and more complex than a lot of people have given it credit for. I think at that point in the movie, you want her to reject the French guy, and the fact that she doesn’t is a final confirmation of her human weaknesses that the film has been diagnosing.

    But I don’t know — maybe I’m giving it too much credit. Anyway, I tried to salvage the movie’s rep in this podcast:
    http://blog.spout.com/2007/08/10/filmcouch-32/

  2. Ted Z. Says:

    Thanks Karina,

    Agreed on the misrepresentation of the overall tone of the film. Looking at the back DVD cover, there’s a “must see for Sex in the City fans” review quote. Not a big SITC viewer, but it seemed off-base. Kind of at odds with what Zoe was going for, initially at least.

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