Lullaby for Pi -- Film Review

An inept attempt at romantic whimsy makes for an underwhelming, at times nearly unwatchable, directorial début from a French filmmaker working in English.  

PARIS -- With the exception of Spike Jonze’s "Where the Wild Things Are," Forest Whitaker has had a tough time keeping up momentum since winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." His last film, "The Experiment," went straight to DVD, and the gloppy "My Own Love Song," co-starring Renee Zellweger, has yet to secure a U.S. release date. The pattern of misfires is unlikely to be altered by Whitaker’s latest, "Lullaby for Pi," a ludicrous romance so full of clichés and forced whimsy that it is nearly unwatchable.

An English-language directorial début from Frenchman Benoit Philippon, the film is a longshot for festival selection. If it does reach North American movie theatres, Lullaby for Pi cannot reasonably hope for anything more than feeble box-office returns.

The film opens with a woman named Josephine (Sarah Wayne Callies) inexplicably barging into the New York hotel room of Sam, a young jazz musician played by British actor Rupert Friend (from Stephen Frears’ Cheri). Before being interrupted, Sam is watching what we learn is his favorite movie, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, a cutesy detail that writer-director Philippon mistakes for character development. When Sam and Josephine get to talking, they engage in the kind of strenuous banter that feels straight out of a beginning screenwriting course.

Lullaby for Pi then flashes forward. We learn that Sam and Josephine eventually fell in love and married but Josephine tragically died. Sam is now in a deep depression, chain-smoking and drinking nights away in the same hotel room. His one friend seems to be George (Whitaker), the affable guy who runs the hotel and plays both cupid and shrink to our protagonist.

The film’s main plot thread begins when another woman arbitrarily marches into Sam’s room, locking herself in the bathroom to hide from an angry boyfriend. Her name is Pi. As played by French actress Clémence Poésy, she is a fidgety creature with paint-stained hands, mysterious tattoos and a permanently sulky gaze.

In the movie’s most cloyingly precious stroke, Sam and Pi fall in love while on opposite sides of the restroom door, with Sam sweet-talking the odd young woman gently and mostly respecting her pathological need to stay in the bathtub. At least this part of Lullaby for Pi, as inane as it is, carries the tiniest drop of curiosity, as we wait for Pi to emerge from her hideout.

Too bad the romance that unfolds once the two lost souls connect face-to-face is one of the most treacly, ineptly written and staged big-screen relationships in recent memory. The main problem is that despite their multitude of tics, neuroses and habits (example: Pi scribbles diary-like prose all over her apartment’s walls), neither character exhibits anything resembling credible human behavior. Pi, especially, feels more like a quirky boardroom pitch -- the child-like, vaguely punk beauty with a haunted past – than a flesh-and-blood person. The film’s final-act bid to explain her elusiveness is both cheap and totally uninteresting, a would-be twist that barely elicits a shrug. Meanwhile, even clumsier than the love story is an afterschool-special-like subplot in which Sam plays mentor to a young black pianist (Matt Ward) struggling to earn his father’s respect.

The two leads are pretty, but display zero chemistry and are hampered by dialogue that is alternately wooden and painfully earnest. And though Philippon gives the film moody lighting and some feverish close-ups presumably meant to underline his characters’ inner turmoil, the look of Lullaby for Pi is as artificial and thinly conceived as the story it tells. The movie’s New York is a recycled fantasy Gotham: boozy, bluesy and utterly familiar to anyone who has watched late-night cable TV in the past 30 years. Philippon also has a heavy hand when it comes to emotional climaxes: A heated exchange between Sam and his young protégé late in the film and a fight between Sam and Pi at a cocktail party ring laughably false.

Many will end up wondering how a project as deeply misguided as Lullaby for Pi managed to get the green light to begin with.

Opened: Dec. 1 in France
Production companies: Forecast Pictures, Minds Eye Entertainment
Cast: Rupert Friend, Clémence Poésy, Forest Whitaker, Matt Ward, Sarah Wayne Callies
Director/screenwriter: Benoit Philippon
Producer: Kevin DeWalt, Jean-Charles Levy, Christine Vachon
Executive producer: Yee Yeo Chang, Frédérique Dumas-Zajdela, Nicolas Manuel, Olivier Piasentin
Director of photography: Michel Amathieu
Production designer: Craig Lathrop
Music: George Acogny, Laurent Eyquem
Costume designer: Cathy McComb
Editor: Frédéric Thoraval
No rating, 102 minutes