Woody Allen has made some movies that some people really like.
Ignore how mildly that statement puts things for a moment, if only to recognize that if anyone were looking for a movie with that brain-achingly simplistic idea at the heart of its premise, they'd need look no further than Paris-Manhattan, a meandering muddle that's equal parts tepid Allen homage and shallow exploration of what it means to live life by lessons learned from Allen movies.
Set in Paris, this pretty but aggressively inoffensive romantic comedy astounds by how little it really has to say about love, life or Woody Allen. That's no mean accomplishment — invoking one of cinema's most influential icons and doing nearly nothing with him — but it's one that needs to be seen to be believed. Or not.
At 15, Alice (Alice Taglioni) devours Allen's movies, and an entirely new world unlocks itself with every newly internalized quip, relationship and absurdist thought. She hangs a giant poster of her idol up on her wall, and soon Allen occupies such an enormous presence in her imagination that she's talking to him about boys, morality and what she wants out of life.
A disembodied Allen answers (a la the filmmaker's own Play It Again, Sam) with quotes from his filmography, and the advice, though devoid of its original context, is sweetly reassuring. It's not hard to see how a teenager longing for escape from the ordinary might latch on to such a meaningful artistic relationship and quickly develop unrealistic expectations about life and love.
Despite her best efforts, Alice stays single. In college, there's a glimmer of hope involving an Allenesque man when Alice meets Pierre (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a jazz-loving, Cole Porter-appreciating type. But he falls instantly for Alice's less misanthropic sister Helene (Marine Delterme), and Alice goes back to commiserating with her poster boy.
Years go by, enough for Pierre and Helene to have their own teenage daughter, Laura (Margaux Chatelier), while Alice goes into business with her father (Michel Aumont) as a pharmacist (who also prescribes Bullets Over Broadway).
The family doesn't attempt to hide their worries that Alice will never find a man, and each of them insistently nudges potential suitors her way. Vincent (Yannick Soulier) is handsome; he loves jazz and Cole Porter, and what's more, he loves Woody Allen. He offers Alice the earnest and kinetic moments of connection she's come to expect from love. He's also married.
Victor (Patrick Bruel) is older, schlubbier, and has never seen a Woody Allen movie, but he also hides nothing, speaking his mind without affect and asking questions about Alice and her family that confound and challenge her — and send her back to that poster for guidance.
The choice between two men as different as Victor and Vincent at last prompts Alice to confront Allen's effect on her perspective — and how his movies fare as primers for navigating real-world relationships — but the movie doesn't want to go in that direction. (Perhaps because that would make too much sense.)
Instead, Paris-Manhattan ambles off on an extended detour through the brambles of Helene and Pierre's marital problems as Alice investigates whether the latter is having an affair. She enlists Victor, who works in private security, to break into her sister and brother-in-law's apartment, and that same night her parents do the same.
It's a setup with potential for classic comical misunderstanding, but the script plays so stultifyingly straight that no one's really surprised to see anyone else there, and they all go home. If you're wondering what the poster might have to say at a time like this, you're not the only one.
The plot lurches away from Alice on a couple more jaunts, one where Pierre and Helene wring their hands over all the time Laura is spending with the boyfriend they know so little about. He drives an SUV — is he a drug dealer? He gives her an expensive watch — is he older? What are his intentions? Who is he?
This newest problem is treated here as just another normal anxiety for the parents of a modern teenager, but please — and this should perhaps be directed only to the parents of French teenagers who exist only in movies — just meet your adolescent daughter's boyfriend once, once, in the year they're seeing each other. It really will take out some of that painful guesswork.
Expanding the story into an ensemble piece balances some of Alice's self-absorption but also blunts her unique point of view. Woody Allen's movies have often explored an idea successfully through exaggeration, but Paris-Manhattan is a poor imitation, safely skimming the surface when a deep dive into a warped perspective would be far more interesting.
When Alice comes back into focus, it's clear that the central flaw of Paris-Manhattan is in its underwritten heroine. Alice hasn't made the mistake of seeing her life as a Woody Allen movie — it's just that she thinks life should play by those movies' off-kilter rules. The script doesn't make a judgment as to whether that's a bad thing or not, and it's unclear whether the reason Alice is single is her oversaturation with Woody Allen or that she just hasn't met the right guy yet.
The film's refusal to take a side on these questions — or even to make a statement about Allen himself — robs it of specificity. And on the topics of love, sex, life and the effect of art on how we live, Woody Allen has had a lot to say. Innocuous as it is, Paris-Manhattan does not.