For the past half-decade, Romain Duris has been French cinema's go-to brooder, trapped between Bach toccatas and lowlife thuggery in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), curled up from near-crippling depression in Dans Paris (2006), confronting his own mortality in Paris (2008), and fending off both a stalker and a girlfriend in Persécution (2009). Diversifying his saturnine handsomeness, Duris gives his artfully disheveled mop and permanent three-day stubble a workout in the overextended, hopped-up Heartbreaker, which puts the “antic” in romantic comedy.
The premise of Heartbreaker, the first feature by TV and commercial vet Pascal Chaumeil, has a certain twisted chivalrous charm: Alex (Duris) — aided by his sister, Mélanie (Julie Ferrier), and her husband, Marc (François Damiens) — is paid to break up couples, but only those in which the woman is miserable. Mastering many languages and identities, Alex prompts the dissolution of the unhappy unions by seducing (but never bedding) the ladies, reminding them that they “deserve the best” — an esteem boost that gives them the courage to dump their no-good dudes. Completing an assignment in Marrakech, Alex and his team return to Paris, disastrous finances, and a Serbian bruiser who roughs up the wiry charmer over an outstanding debt.
Economic salvation arrives when a tycoon (Jacques Frantz) offers Alex a tall stack of euros to bend his business principles and end the upcoming nuptials of his daughter, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), who seems genuinely in love and happy with Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln), her British investment-banker fiancé. (Dad to Juliette: “He'll bore you to tears.” The audience agrees.) Alex, suited up in Paul Smith finery, assumes the role of Juliette's chauffeur and bodyguard, driving her to Monaco, where she is supposed to tie the knot in 10 days and he will invariably mix business with pleasure.
Though the Côte d'Azur seascapes, nicely photographed by frequent Luc Besson cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, divert, neither Mediterranean beauty nor that of Duris and Paradis can compensate for Heartbreaker's fatal imbalance: Duris' nonstop animation versus Paradis' catatonia. Laurent Zeitoun, who wrote the screenplay with Jeremy Doner and Yohan Gromb, cites Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert's dynamic in It Happened One Night as a touchstone for Alex and Juliette. But where Frank Capra's 1934 film, like all the classic screwball comedies of its era, treats its cross-purposed leads as equals, Heartbreaker's distaff protagonist remains distant, obscure, and even duller than the English guy. Singer, model, and performer Paradis, best known for her titular role in Patrice Leconte's The Girl on the Bridge (1999), the gap between her two front teeth, and as the companion of Johnny Depp, appears somnambulant if not outright bored, a robotic object of desire. “She's a dormant volcano, always in control,” one character says of Juliette. For Paradis, “control” means vacancy.
To fill in the energy vacuum created by Paradis' lazy heiress hauteur, Duris must exhaust himself and his spectators through countless physical challenges: stunts, gags, sprints, and Patrick Swayze hip thrusts. Dirty Dancing, Alex learns during his Juliette recon, is her favorite film; Wham!'s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” her favorite song — safe, easy recycling of '80s pop bound to appeal to viewers on our side of the Atlantic (and the other side of English Channel: A U.K. production company announced plans for an English-language remake in May). Constantly on the go, Duris, all sharp angles and lissome limbs, does exhibit a gymnast's grace and equipoise, even in the snuggest suit and tie; his performance is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmondo's in amorous '60s capers like That Man from Rio. But this perpetual motion often feels like wheel-spinning desperation, hyperactivity that can't mask the absence of a genuine emotional center. There's trouble in Paradis — and in a script that prizes frenzy over any actual feeling.