Braff plays Henry, an American living in Canada. He's a glib, self-satisfied drug dealer who spends his nights taking calls and hopping from club to club to find his anxious clients -- when they call, he listens for a few seconds, doesn't say anything, and hangs up. While searching for one client's house, he turns the wrong way down a one-way street and can't stop his car in time to avoid hitting Nathalie (Isabelle Blais). Nathalie gets off with a mild concussion, but her baby, only a few weeks away from delivery, does not survive. As she spirals a deep depression, she finds herself moving away from her overworked, emotionless husband (Patrick Labbé), and clinging to the memory of the baby.
Despite a few plot contrivances, the character of Nathalie is complex and compelling. Blais has a couple of good scenes reacting to Labbé's emotional obliviousness, and Chow's idea that Nathalie is forced to keep carrying the baby after its death (doctors feel it's too traumatic for her to complete a stillborn delivery so soon after the accident) is really haunting and sad. But Chow would rather focus on Henry, busy digging his own grave: he enlists Johnny (Julian Lo), son of the owners of the Chinese restaurant Henry is living above, to find out what happened to Nathalie after the accident. This leads to Henry following her, which leads to him meeting her, and, suddenly, her moving in with him as her marriage finally collapses. I suppose many writers prefer the challenge of writing from a perspective unlike their own, but it's unusual how Chow has created a female character with a uniquely feminine trauma, and then ditched her to spotlight Henry instead.
Of course, it would also make sense if Henry was an interesting character, but he isn't. Sometimes good people accidentally do bad things, Chow and Braff don't have any light to shine on this idea. Part of it is Braff's performance: although he delivers a few douchebag lines at the beginning, there's never any sense Henry was less than a genuinely nice person, and his sadness frequently registers as very "wounded puppy dog" instead of "emotional wreck." As for Chow, she robs us of Henry's crucial post-accident panic, skipping right to Nathalie awakening in the hospital, so we never see that transformation. Instead, she treats us to a whole encyclopedia's worth of tired moments, like a session of Goofy Bonding (the two play hopscotch with a bottle of scotch), the Tender Moment (Henry reads to Nathalie after she has a bad dream), and the Failed Confession (Nathalie thinks Henry is going to talk about completing the delivery). She can't even resist allowing a hint of romantic attraction to seep into a scene, even though it would make perfect sense at that particular moment for Henry to reject it.
As the film progresses, each development in Henry and Nathalie's relationship requires a larger investment of the audience's suspension of disbelief, all while Chow continues to ignore Nathalie's feelings by reflecting them through Henry's shallow reactions. If more of the relationship (and inevitable fallout) were played from Nathalie's perspective, The High Cost of Living might have been able to scratch at some true emotional conflict. One such moment, between Nathalie and Johnny, is heart-stopping and evocative, putting the audience into Nathalie's shoes for one reeling moment. Sadly, Chow quickly resumes telling the story from the outside in, more concerned with the (tired) surface details of the story than exploring those details through her characters.
The Video and Audio
For some strange reason, the disc defaulted to Dolby Digital 2.0 instead of the 5.1 track. The 5.1 track has much better ambience: early club scenes give the movie some chances to create an immersive atmosphere, and there is an interesting moment late in the movie when the sound of a car radio fights with the score as a dramatic device. However, the film is mostly quiet dialogue scenes, which are clear and free of noise. Since the film is set in Canada, about half the dialogue is in French, with burned-in English subs. If your TV has closed captioning functions, that option is available, and they do not play over the French dialogue. (Note: the packaging reads "English and French with English subtitles," in reference to the dialogue only; the two tracks here only contain the mixed language as opposed to the disc containing separate "English" and "French" tracks.)
A Tribeca/American Express promo (featuring the short Mr. Stache) and trailers for Non-Educated Delinquents and The Bleeding House play before the main menu. No trailer for The High Cost of Living is included.