Flying Bland

Cast against type, Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno get mired in stale formula

Jul 16, 2003 at 4:00 am
More like Hollywood fluff than Gallic farce or sophistication, the French romantic comedy Jet Lag stars Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno as mismatched lovers who meet when circumstances -- bad weather, computer glitches, a strike by air traffic controllers -- ground them both at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. Both actors play against type and manage to carry off their roles with aplomb. The problem is that the characters they are portraying are neither interesting nor memorable.

Rose (Binoche) is a beautician, glamorous at first glance but, upon closer inspection, wearing way too much makeup and clothes that fit a little too snugly. She has a forthright manner and lousy taste in men. She is at the airport in an attempt to run away from her latest abusive boyfriend (a cameo by Sergi Lopez). Felix (Reno) is a neurotic, finicky claustrophobic, a former chef turned frozen-food king whose track record with the opposite sex is as bad as Rose's. He is headed to a funeral, hoping to win back his ex-girlfriend in the process.

The two meet when Rose asks to borrow Felix's cell phone after inadvertently flushing her own down the toilet. As problems mount at the airport and one flight after another is cancelled, they find themselves continually running into one another. Not the sociable type, especially toward someone with Rose's obvious working-class roots, Felix deflects her repeated attempts to engage him in conversation, then feels guilty and suggests she hole up in his room at the airport Hilton until flights resume.

Needless to say, the two are polar opposites and their attempt at getting along, even for just one evening, seems doomed. But what would a romantic comedy be without obstacles?

The film is essentially a two-hander. Aside from the setup, it focuses exclusively on two characters who appear together on screen for pretty much the rest of the picture. To top it off, 90 percent of the story takes place inside a confined space, either a hotel room or the airline terminal waiting area.

Two-character stories are risky because if either the characters or the specific actors don't work, the movie is a bust. A prime example is the recent Alex and Emma, which faltered due to a poorly-written script, lackluster performances and pedestrian direction. Jet Lag, directed and co-written by Danièle Thompson (screenwriter of Cousin, Cousine and La Bûche), along with her son Christopher, contains convincing comic dialogue, well-delivered by the two stars and, considering its limited locales, never feels stagy. But the two characters aren't particularly interesting or engaging and the audience never feels that they are meant to be together. The problem may partially be that neither actor fits his/her character. Who wants to see the intelligent, waif-like Binoche play this kind of dumb bunny? And while Reno's stressed-out demeanor is believable, it simply isn't all that attractive or involving.

Early on, Rose reveals that she would love a "whole day when my life would be like an American movie." She envisages Roman Holiday, the film she is watching at the start of the picture. Unfortunately, Jet Lag has none of that film's winsome charm. While far more tolerable than, say, Alex and Emma, it essentially is aiming for the same broad appeal and studio-movie audience. When you have such wonderfully iconoclastic stars at your disposal, the last thing you should do is ask them to take cookie-cutter roles.