Adam Brooks, the writer of Lawrence Kasdan's new film French Kiss, did half his job well - his script is tremendously funny. He has constructed a romantic, neurotic farce so charming that we can almost forgive its fundamental flaw - the plot is utterly inane.
French Kiss tells the now-familiar story of a woman (Meg Ryan) who is engaged to the Wrong Man, realizes it, finds Mr. Right, and has all sorts of epiphanies along the way. The role has become a mainstay of Ryan's acting career; she plays it just about every other movie, and in a sense, the predictability has become rather comforting. We've seen IQ, Sleepless in Seattle, and When Harry Met Sally, and by now, it's reflex. We see Meg Ryan, and we say to ourselves, "Oh, she's going to end up with the grubby-looking guy."
In this permutation, Ryan's character, Kate, chases her fiance to Paris, where she hopes to win him back from the svelte young Parisienne (Susan Anbeh) who has stolen his heart in about two days. As usual with the Meg-Ryan-finds-her-soulmate oeuvre, the audience can tell right off that Charlie, the fiance (Timothy Hutton), is a cad. On the plane, Kate sits next to a shabby French thief with dreams of agriculture. They get along terribly. Kate is the sort who (again true to Ryan form) plans meticulously for the future and glows as if new-polished. Luc lives hand-to-mouth and reeks of nicotine. Guess who Kate ends up with.
Not that Brooks and Kasdan haven't done their best to put a new face on things here; French Kiss is simply chock full of sinuous twists. Unfortunately, many of them are too ludicrous for comfort. Among the integral elements: a dead faint in a hotel lobby, a rather obscure snarl-up involving Kate's residency status, and a contrived sort of symbiosis between Luc and the local police detective (Jean Reno). Aboard the pursuit train, Kate has an inscrutable lactose-intolerance attack, which looks at first like a reprise of the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. It seems Brooks might have found a slightly less left-field device. Here and elsewhere, he sacrifices plausibility for a laugh that comes out edgy at best.
Meg Ryan, unfortunately, can't always handle the wackiness. In a more soft-hearted picture, her earnest good nature can be endearing. Here, though, in the hands of a satirist, she appears often to be at a loss - like a substitute teacher who knows he's the butt of the joke, and who isn't sure whether to laugh along. Ryan's punch line delivery can be dead-on, and she conveys a certain charm throughout. But Kasdan doesn't always seem to know what to do with her charm; it seems almost out of place here.
Kevin Kline, on the other hand, is right at home. As the vintner-turned-criminal with a potency problem, Kline performs masterfully. He too has apparently seen this movie before, and he knows not to concentrate too hard on being sincere. He is therefore free to do what he does best - mug for the camera. Kline is among the most subtle comic actors working, and he goads the rest of the cast into having a good time here, despite the impotent narrative. Perhaps his greatest contribution to French Kiss is in saving it from a short slide into slapstick. He knows how to handle comedy without sacrificing character - a skill with which the rest of the principals, including Kasdan and Brooks, have some difficulty. "For me," Luc says, "bullshit is like breathing." This seems right. It just comes naturally.
It's too bad that the rest of the company did not catch on as quickly. French Kiss had the potential to be an interesting departure from a rapidly tiring genre. It entertains, make no mistake; French Kiss is a very funny movie - only it seems at the same time remorseful, as if there were a serious drama somewhere in here, being squandered for laughs. Such happy-go-lucky plot lines call for a lighter touch.