Broken English is an understated personal drama of the kind that independent cinema has buttered its film stock with for as long as such a thing as indie cinema has existed. Parker Posey plays Nora, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence who has found her art degree does her little good in her job as a guest and event wrangler at a chi-chi New York hotel. It also hasn't contributed much to her love life. Though she put her best friends Audrey (Drea de Matteo) and Mark (Tim Guinee) together in what is at least a semi-happy, functioning marriage, she has had little luck in finding her own mate. Cue a disastrous, sake-fueled night out with a smug, smooth-talking actor (Justin Theroux). The post-seduction glow inspires her to tell her parents (Gena Rowlands and Peter Bogdanovich) that she has a new boyfriend, but this light is just as quickly snuffed when she sees her alleged beau on a celebrity gossip show applying that smooth talk to his real girlfriend.
This brightness of emotion curdles into a haze of defeat, and it's cloaked in this aura that Nora moves through the holidays. A chance meeting at a party she almost didn't attend leads to a blissful couple of days with a passionate Frenchman. Julien (Melvil Poupaud) drags Nora into a good time and listens to her woes--though it's never quite clear if his attentiveness is really just a byproduct of language confusion or genuine interest--a too-good-to-be-true scenario that, of course, Nora screws up, sending her spinning toward figuring out what is wrong with her.
Only, the break from her happiness with Julien is kind of an out-of-leftfield turn that doesn't really work for the movie. Suffering a sudden anxiety attack, Nora ends up coming off as a crazy person, and the fact that Julien doesn't go running is a bit of a puzzler. Broken English is the first-time directorial effort of Zoe Cassavetes, and this arbitrary device plays as if it's the filmmaker that's having the anxiety attack, not her subject. Here I feel compelled to note that Zoe is the daughter of Rowlands and influential film director John Cassavetes. I would have loved to review the film without bringing it up, but Zoe did cast her own mother to be her main character's mother, and the theme of love trying to weather some kind of mental illness was done best by her parents in 1974's A Woman Under the Influence. Having Nora's previously unrevealed (and never returning) psychological issues be the big hurdle blocking romance came off as less of a plausible story element and more like a bid for some part of the family legacy. (Remember, brother Nick's directorial debut was dad's script She's So Lovely, also about a relationship troubled by mental problems.)
What this does is call attention to the fact that Zoe is trying to go for the same kind of unforced reality that John was best known for, and she doesn't quite get how to do it. For all the moments of unguarded honesty, the script is also filled with standard film action. The whole back half of the film, with Nora heading to Paris to search for her lost love, feels forced and implausible. It was also a bit wearying how every Frenchman Nora met was a passionate, freewheeling lover who was immediately intrigued by this unconventional woman. While unconventional is sexy, particularly as embodied by Parker Posey, Nora is less intriguing than she is boring. And the whole ooh-la-la Francophilia works only as adolescent fantasy.
Which isn't Posey's fault. What a refreshing gift Cassavetes has given us by casting one of my favorite actresses in a role that doesn't force her to fall into the same old quirky traps that she made so uniquely her own back in the 1990s. No one does oddball better than her, true enough, but she has more to offer than that, and I think if Zoe had the same facility with actors that John had, Posey could have really lit up the screen. She manages to make Nora real and the performance isn't at all forced, but the material doesn't give the actress anything to hang onto.
Still, Broken English lands neatly in the category of interesting first feature from a talent to watch. I wasn't all that knocked out by Nick Cassavetes' debut either, but was impressed by his follow-up, Unhook the Stars. Zoe Cassavetes has enough of a handle on how to put a film together, she just needs to step outside the family circle and establish her own style and she could be a rather strong director. You could feel the author struggling to say something here, pushing to unleash the true heart of her story, she just doesn't quite get there.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.