Barbecue: Beijing Review

StudioCanal
Just go and buy a red Porsche already.

French actor Lambert Wilson ("Of Gods and Men") stars in this half-baked comedy-drama about a group of bourgeois friends who have to confront the pitfalls of middle age.

As stories about men -- especially French ones -- and their midlife crises go, Barbecue is a pretty tame entry into a genre that often overflows with coarse and outrageous shenanigans. This fifth feature of comedy director Eric Lavaine (the 2011 cruise-themed hit Bienvenue a bord!) drifts along as the characters encounter the overly simplistic pitfalls of middle-age and their middle-class existence. Devoid of either profound soul-searching or catastrophic but hilarious fallings-out, the film is the French cinematic equivalent of a tempest in a teapot (a storm in a glass of rosé?).

However, the lavish lifestyles portrayed, the sun-kissed settings and a cast of local A-listers -- including star Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men, Cycling with Moliere) and hit comedian Franck Dubosc (The Date Coach), who here appears in his third Lavaine film -- should help this French April 30 release do solid numbers. Beyond Gallic shores, it will provide fodder for Francophone programs such as the Panorama of French Cinema showcase in the Chinese capital and the Beijing International Film Festival, where the film had its twin international premieres. 

Barbecue is set in Lyon, France's second-biggest city, and revolves around 50-year-old Antoine (Wilson), who spends his weekdays as an executive at his father's biotech conglomerate and who attends the soccer matches of Olympique Lyonnais on weekends. With his wife Vero (Sophie Duez), who's a doctor, always tied up at work, Antoine dedicates his evenings to extramarital trysts. But his self-proclaimed "careful routine" ends when Antoine has an unexpected brush with death, after a 10-km race ends in cardiac arrest and he decides to quit his job, loaf around, stuff himself with artery-blocking steak frites and entirely give up on his nocturnal Casanova activities. It's hardly a groundbreaking change-of-heart and in fact feels like a retreat into a duller existence, a transformation into banality for both the character and, sadly, the film.

The title alludes to a garden-grill gathering shown early on, where Antoine and his chums are introduced. "A barbecue is like a ballet, with people playing specific roles," the protagonist explains in voice-over, and indeed, all the archetypes are there: Yves (Guillaume de Tonquedec, from What's in a Name?) and Laure (Belgian actress Lysiane Meis) are the couple eternally trying to keep up with the Joneses; the emotionally suppressed Laurent (Lionel Abelanski, also appearing in his third Lavaine film) and his near-invisible wife, Nathalie (Valerie Crouzet) form another unstable duo and then there are the bickering almost-divorcees: feisty ladette Olivia (local stand-up star Florence Foresti) and her jealous-but-still-smitten partner, Baptiste (Dubosc).

Jerome Commandeur, a character actor known for his work in Dany Boon's films, rounds out the ensemble as the naive Jean-Michel, a car mechanic who befriended the group when he was the janitor at the school cafeteria where the gang used to meet.  

The screenplay, by Lavaine and regular co-writer Hector Cabello Reyes, plays it very safe and the caricatured trajectories of the characters make any type of chemistry between them nearly impossible. Barring a minor revelation about a past fling, which is shrugged off after a short but comical row, any kind of drama-generating betrayal is practically non-existent. One would expect the group's vacation at an isolated country mansion to generate some kind of a meltdown but when the implosion comes, very late in the film, it's a whimpering, cringe-worthy episode that's almost an afterthought.

The characters are nearly all needy, bourgeois brats who are more comfortable laughing at rather than with other people. When their buddies need help, they often opt to not do anything, with only Jean-Michel, the unsophisticated, working-class simpleton, apparently endowed with any redeeming qualities, though his kind behavior is actually ridiculed by the others, which makes it ever harder to root for them. And amidst all the half-baked attempts at drama, the issues surrounding the characters' middle-age crises are more often obscured than explored.

Venue: Beijing International Film Festival (Beijing Panorama)

Production Companies: Same Player, StudioCanal, TFI Films Production, Cinéfrance 1888

Director: Eric Lavaine

Cast: Lambert Wilson, Franck Dubosc, Florence Foresti, Guillaume de Tonquedec

Producers: Vincent Roget, Francois Cornuau

Executive Producer: Gala Vara Eiriz

Screenwriters: Eric Lavaine, Hector Cabello Reyes

Director of Photography: Francois Hernandez

Editor: Vincent Zuffranieri

Music: Gregory Louis

International Sales: StudioCanal

No MPAA rating, 98 minutes

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