Reading aloud from the Michelin Guide might have been made for more riveting fare than the tedious gastronomic road trip that is “Paris Can Wait.” It’s an odd choice as the first narrative film directed by Eleanor Coppola, known best for her 1991 documentary “Hearts of Darkness,” about the making of her husband Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
It’s intriguing that she waited until 80 to direct her first non-documentary, though the story is said to be based on an experience from her own life. Still, it’s a mystery why she would want to go from hard-hitting, affecting filmmaking to a wafer-thin travel romance that seems like it belongs on Lifetime.
An engaging and intelligent actress, Diane Lane in the lead role nudges this slight, smug sojourn just out of the realm of slog, and for foodies or Francophiles (before or after this week’s election), the film will hold some allure. But the minimal character development will frustrate filmgoers seeking substance, as will Coppola’s stilted dialogue. The pointless story of a pair of privileged white people enjoying a series of lavish meals and pricey hotels is cringe-worthy in its casual and tone-deaf elitism.
It’s meant to be a story of a woman’s self-discovery, but feels more like the tame yearnings of a desperately bored housewife: dally with a handsome foreigner who flatters her, insists she sample succulent gourmet dishes and wine pairings, fills the car with flowers and squires her to exquisitely beautiful landscapes. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, if it were confined to vacation photos on a Facebook page, but none of these elements add up to a riveting movie.
Lane plays Anne, an impeccably dressed 50-ish woman whose nest has recently emptied; her daughter has gone off to college and her producer husband Michael (Alec Baldwin) is often away on location. She’s smart and sophisticated, but feels adrift. While her life looks pretty charmed to an outsider, the blandly dissatisfied Anne is under-appreciated by her husband. Still, she’s a traditional wife — she can tell him just where she packed his socks, and she enjoys a man ordering for her in a restaurant.
Anne accompanies her neglectful husband to Cannes, where she complains of ear pain. Michael has business in Budapest, and he and Anne are about to fly there on a private jet when she is warned that altitude will exacerbate her earache. (She’s a grown woman and somehow didn’t know this?) Enter Jacques (Arnaud Viard), Michael’s insistently charming business partner. He offers to drive Anne to Paris. Once in the City of Lights, Anne will reunite with her peripatetic husband at the well-appointed home of some equally wealthy friends.
Jacques is determined to play tour guide through the French countryside. He insists on stopping at the finest restaurants and loveliest hotels along the way. Anne resists rather half-heartedly, then begins to relax and enjoy the experience. Theirs is a rarified world of First World problems. Wine or no wine? Fix a broken fan belt or rent a car? Anne devises a fan belt fix with her pantyhose. What a clever American woman she is, marvels Jacques. Amid all the silly contrivances and pseudo-concerns of the rich and fabulous, a poignant moment stands out when Anne shares her grief over a lost child.
Two adults who unexpectedly discover a bond — as friends, lovers or something in between — while thrown together in travel is a theme that has made for evocative cinema: Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” are terrifically crafted travel romances. “Lost in Translation” (directed by Eleanor Coppola’s daughter, Sofia) whimsically chronicles two unlikely people, coming together in Tokyo. “Cairo Time,” with Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig, dramatizes the unexpected rush of flirtation and heady attraction connecting two people from different countries, bound by prior commitments.
“Paris Can Wait,” however, feels superficial, forced and forgettable. It comes off like a travelogue as envisioned by Nancy Meyers — awash in sumptuous locations, well-dressed protagonists and artfully displayed food, but not much else.
Everything looks beautiful, but the players are supremely un-interesting. Anne confesses her lifelong weakness. Spoiler alert: it’s chocolate. Mais, non!
Jacques’ character feels like a cliché en Français. He’s a charming Frenchman with a penchant for fine wine, haute cuisine and desultory rendezvous. He loves cigarettes and his old Peugeot. All he’s missing is a beret and a baguette.
There’s no denying the film brings to vivid life the gorgeous French countryside (as captured by cinematographer Crystel Fournier, “Girlhood”), as well as the appeal of sumptuous dining. It’s a pleasure to see Lane in a lead role, and it’s heartening that Coppola tackles a middle-aged woman’s story. It’s just too bad she didn’t dig deeper for substance. Perhaps if Anne and Jacques had had some evident chemistry, the lack of character development and half-baked plot might have been more forgivable.
The fourth-wall breaking resolution is meant to be a charming surprise, but leaves the viewer feeling queasy, aided by the endless displays of rich food. Maybe a better title for this stale travel saga would have been “Eat, Drive, Bore.”