The emphasis in Danielle Thompson’s second feature (following the fractured but sporadically successful ensemble piece “La buche” of 1999) is unhappily on the second word of the title instead of the first (I speak of the English moniker, of course). Though it runs only a bit more than 80 minutes, “Jet Lag”–despite isolated moments of insight and charm– is rather slow and halting, and winds up seeming a lot longer than that.
The picture falls into that subgenre of romantic comedy in which two totally dissimilar people meet in some cute fashion, and after arguing for a short time find that they’ve fallen hopelessly in love. In this case, in which the focus is so firmly on the leads that one can imagine it having originated as a two-character play (even though it’s apparently an original script), the pair is Rose (Juliette Binoche), a sophisticated but frazzled beautician fleeing her abusive boyfriend, and Felix (Jean Reno), the gastronomically-obsessed head of a frozen-food firm who’s traveling to Munich for the funeral of his ex-girlfriend’s grandmother in hopes of arranging a reconciliation. The two meet in Paris’ De Gaulle Airport when she asks to use his cell phone–she’s dropped hers down the toilet–and the instrument henceforth holds them strangely together. (The phone, in fact, easily has the third biggest part in the movie, sounding off–with an increasingly aggravating snippet from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”–every time the plot needs to be nudged forward. It’s a flimsy writers’ device, which encourages you to think that all the callers must be psychic, knowing exactly when their interventions will be most helpful or intrusive.) All flights are delayed or canceled as a result of a transit strike (trains are affected, too, though it seems that taxis aren’t involved), so after some stumbling and fumbling the duo winds up in a Hilton hotel room, where they “get to know” one another by squabbling over dinner but eventually arrive at a sort of understanding and even friendship. Further phone calls and summonses to departing flights intervene, setting off misunderstandings, near-break-offs and additional revelations, until the pair find themselves geographically distant but emotionally close, each finally having “found himself” through the intervention of the other. Guess what instrument the Thompsons seize upon to bring them together again?
This kind of “Affair to Remember” fluff can work, but it’s tricky to pull off. It demands very sharp writing and leads with a great deal of chemistry between them. Unfortunately, “Jet Lag” doesn’t provide enough of either. The script doesn’t sparkle–it meanders along, using the phone and some conveniently-timed fainting fits to push the narrative ahead, until it comes to resemble a car lurching forward and halting in stop-and-go traffic: for each moment of insight or cleverness there are two of tedium or preciousness. And the stars, though accomplished performers, don’t set off sparks, either. Binoche looks lovely–especially after an accident removes her heavy makeup–but comes across as surprisingly stiff and cold, even at the end when she’s supposed to have thawed. Reno, with a mane of scruffy hair, proves an extremely unlikely romantic leading man–with all his tics and mannerisms, he comes across as a fussbudget with all the peculiarities of another Felix (Unger), and his last-minute conversion to sympathetic lovesick swain is more a screenwriter’s mandate than a logical transition. The only other human performer who gets any screen time worthy of mention is Sergi Lopez as Sergio, Rose’s two-faced lover, who shows up briefly at the airport to try to win her back with charm before turning threatening. It’s a nice cameo, confirming the actor as the best baby-faced brute in French cinema; but “With a Friend Like Harry,” a far superior film, gives him much more scope for the same character. All the phones do their jobs well; the fact that they function so perfectly amidst the chaos leads to the suspicion that the picture might have been financed by Bell or AT&T. (Or given the likely boxoffice reaction, by WorldCom.)
Technically “Jet Lag” is polished; the widescreen cinematography by Patrick Blossier makes even the airport interior look fairly glamorous. But in the final analysis, the movie–like the characters for most of its running-time–doesn’t get very far. It will likely make its way to Hollywood, though: an English-language remake is probably inevitable. And when it appears, the comparison will doubtlessly lead us to look back on the original with greater affection. On its own, though, Thompson’s film is a slight, wispy confection that never manages to take wing.