Route 132 -- Film Review

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MONTREAL -- The cinema of Quebec has had a hard time flourishing outside its native region, and Louis Belanger's new road movie "Route 132" is not likely to help matters. An unwieldy blend of broad buddy-flick humor and mawkish sentimentality, the film throws a man reeling from the sudden death of his son in a car with a childhood friend (and small-time crook) and sends them down the titular highway through rural Quebec -- and on toward self-discovery, inner peace and various other TV-movie-ish platitudes.

"Route" might be a hit in parts of Canada but probably will not attract much attention elsewhere. It lacks the air of edge and refinement typical of most successful stateside foreign-language fare.

The sense that we've seen this story before -- and told more sharply, for that matter -- hangs over "Route" from its very first scenes. The film opens with a middle-aged man, Gilles (Francois Papineau), in a state of grief-triggered panic after his young son dies. Instead of going to the funeral, Gilles hits the bottle hard and ends up taking off with fast-talking Bob (Alexis Martin), who convinces him that there is easy money to be stolen in a remote region of Francophone Canada.

Needless to say, the open road has unexpected (for the characters) but wholly predictable (for the audience) adventures in store. Those range from bizarre slapstick -- an odd, mildly amusing bit involving a pothead thief with an Asian fetish -- to obligatory plot points, like the romance between Bob and a friendly local woman (Sophie Bourgeois) with a cartoonishly nasty boyfriend. The final third of "Route" lunges awkwardly toward pure melodrama.

Along the way, Belanger, who also co-wrote the screenplay, manages to stage a few poignant moments: Gilles' halting exchange with a sympathetic young drifter on a beach and a conversation with his grandma about the agony of losing a child. But "Route" mainly plods along in a cliche-induced stupor, occasionally rallying for a jokey outburst from the only intermittently funny Bob. The crime subplot, for its part, barely registers as part of the story.

The film is shot competently, but Belanger relies too heavily on tormented close-ups of the anguished Gilles. He occasionally indulges in touches that tread a thin line between clumsy and tasteless; one particularly heavyhanded flourish comes when Gilles is being chased on foot by the police, and Belanger suddenly cuts to the protagonist's shadow running after that of a small boy (the dead son).

The rural Canadian landscapes certainly are pretty, but the director doesn't do anything with them that could distract us from the terminal blandness of what's happening elsewhere onscreen.

Performances are fine, if unremarkable. Martin registers more vividly than anyone else, as he brings a spark of comic energy via Bob that the film desperately needs.

To feel compelling, this material needed some type of decisive narrative or visual approach; a disciplined lack of sentimentality, pure lyricism or all-out humor might have been options. But Belanger falls back on easy emotional cues and a strenuous bittersweetness that make one eager to shake the film off as soon as the lights go up.

Venue: Montreal World Film Festival
Production: Aetios Production, Cinemaginaire
Cast: Francois Papineau, Alexis Martin, Sophie Bourgeois, Andree Lachapelle, Gilles Renaud, Janine Sutto
Director: Louis Belanger
Screenwriter: Louis Belanger, Alexis Martin
Producer: Fabienne Larouche, Denise Robert, Michel Trudeau, Daniel Louis
Director of photography: Pierre Mignot
Production designer: Emmanuel Frechette
Music: Benoit Charest, Guy Belanger
Costume designer: Judy Jonker
Editor: Claude Palardy
No rating, 113 minutes
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