Little White Lies
Like "The Big Chill" with a French twist, "Little White Lies" tries to find some profundity in its cast of passive-aggressive, self-obsessed middle-aged types. The differences between the films: instead of a dead Kevin Costner bringing everyone together, it’s an almost dead Jean Dujardin whose hospital stay hangs over this get together like a cloud; and where "Big Chill" found pathos, director Guillaume Canet’s "White Lies" inspires nothing but boredom.
The film concerns the usual assortment of clichés thrown into a house and forced by the script to weed out each other’s insecurities - the control freak who condescends constantly (Max), the lovesick doofus (Antoine), the egomaniac actor (Eric), the fed-up wives (Isabelle and Veronique), and the seductress (Marie, the perfectly cast Marion Cotillard) - until they all embrace in a big happy moment. Some of the character details are a bit more prescient than you’d expect from such a rote set-up, but when the film surprises you, it’s small-scale.
The major turns you can always see coming a mile away - especially the one that opens the film, where Dujardin takes a wrong turn drunk driving and gets walloped by a truck. Such predictability is a death sentence for a film that runs over 2 and a half hours, and Jean’s disappearance takes away the liveliest force in the movie just as the opening credits end. The acting is strong, but Canet’s direction is weak, languishing them in a never-ending series of meaningless over-the-shoulder shots. He hangs them out to dry, and with such a been-there-done-that script, I imagine most audiences will tune out by the two-hour mark. In France this may play like "Ocean’s Eleven," but here it cannot rest on its laurels.
Perhaps the film’s biggest problem is tonal, made most clear in an unfortunate subplot sure to leave more than a few viewers unsatisfied. When Max’s best friend of 15 years, Vincent, confides to him that he finds himself attracted to Max (while vehemently denying that he is "a queer"), it’s a brutal scene, full of repressed truths boiling quickly to the surface.
Yet instead of following up on those emotions, the film instead uses the subplot as some kind of awkward comedy device, doing things like leaving the two stranded on a boat for hours after Max accidently loses his pants. By the end of the film, we’re back to brutal honesty and emotional sincerity, yet Canet never actually bothers to investigate the intricacies of the conflict - whether or not Vincent is gay is a question that’s dropped in favor of "hey, wouldn’t it be funny to see these two guys get into awkward situations a few times?" If the rest of the film flowed with a sense of artistry, this might feel all encompassing, comedy and drama intermingling. Instead, it feels incompetent.
And then there’s the films debilitating length, which is never - not even for a stretch - earned by the content. Two hours into the trip, and Max is still buying his friends expensive things with condescending aims - the same damn thing he was doing 20 minutes into the film. Most of the film feels like padding, where it should be developing deeper, it simply drones on about what we already know. I’m not the biggest fan of "The Big Chill," but the ideas and conflicts explored in that film feel like Bergman compared to most of those bourgeois observations.
And of course, this all culminates in a Big Important Scene where a heretofore mostly off-screen friend loses his temper and rattles off all the characters repressions and problems to them, one-by-one, and then tells them what they need to do to recover, all in the course of about 60 seconds. Never-mind just how overdone this scene is. Tell me, if the entirety of the plot can be recounted in 60 seconds, does the movie really need to be 152 minutes?
I want to give credit where credit is due, so I must admit Marion Cotillard, as always, exudes an unpredictable (yet elegant) energy that keeps you from ever taking your eyes off her while she’s in the frame. She sexually dominates the rest of the cast, most of it derived from the script, but other times just in the ways she looks at them, or moves towards them. It’s engrossing stuff.
And I must admit, Canet’s central metaphor for the problems burrowing their way out of our subjects is pretty funny - a crew of weasels sneaking their way through the walls of the cabin. Yes, it’s far from subtle, and yes, it may even be juvenile. But I chuckled quite a bit when he finally gave in and started doing long tracking shots of the weasels (as opposed to the people), so that flourish gets a thumbs up from me.
The problem is that the good points never come together. The classic hits soundtrack is wacky at best (it opens with The Jets and within an hour we’re cruising along to Creedence’s "Fortunate Son") and entirely derails the film at its worst (the overwrought conclusion). The overused montages feel both like a Band-Aid connecting unstructured scenes and a way to cover plot points they forgot to write into the dialogue. It feels like a collection of pieces; it never coalesces.
At 90 minutes, features like Cotillard, or the weasels, would stand out and shine. At 152, they’re lost in the shuffle. Instead of an enjoyable comedy, it becomes a failed epic with some sporadic laughs.