By Joan Ellis
The key to the great fun of “Chinese Puzzle” is its cast.
A script calling for a crowd of characters runs the risk of confusing the audience but here each character becomes a strong, quirky individual who we want to follow through the story. Any miscast role could have hurt the whole because the wacky structure is as wonderfully rickety as any Chinese puzzle.
The key to its success is Romain Duris, who plays Xavier, a thoroughly appealing French writer who wishes desperately for some calm in his life and is instead awash in personal chaos. In his effort to stay unentangled, he runs full tilt through his days in a state of charming bewilderment. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have pulled this off without seeming cloying. He’s terrific.
Consider the crowd he is navigating. His ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) fled Paris with their two children to live in New York with an American she met on a business trip. Unwilling to be away from his children, Xavier follows her and bunks in with his old friend Isabelle (Cecile De France) whose current partner is Ju (Sandrine Holt). When Isabelle asks for a sperm donation, her ticket to motherhood, Xavier obliges. So now Xavier has fathered a child for an old pal.
All this unfolds at the very time he is trying to satisfy the demands of a zealous immigration officer (Peter McRobbie) who is trying to prove Xavier is not married to Nancy (Li Jun Li), the Chinese-American niece of Ray (Sharrieff Pugh), who was saved in a horrific NYC street fight by a heroic Xavier. Nancy is repaying the family debt by pretending to be Xavier’s American wife for immigration purposes. Whenever old girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) arrives from France, she and Xavier engage in a prickly standoff, each afraid the other isn’t the perfect partner. And I haven’t even mentioned the complication of Isabelle’s affair with la baby sitter (Flore Bonaventura).
The loud, fractured score is the perfect background for the fragmented texture of New York. The city itself is presented without the conventional beauty but with the abundant noise of horns, taxis, subways and people packed closely in grubby apartments.
The whole thing is a comic tangle of emotions, actions and reactions, written and directed in creative flash-cut style by Cedric Klapisch and acted by his team of good actors who obviously enjoy the chaos they are creating for our pleasure. Watching Xavier race from one complication to the next as he tries to snuff out brush fires so he can write in peace is fun because we know he is doomed.
As Martine says so fittingly when he complains that his life is out of control, “I can see you’ve never been to China.” The wondrous Xavier is caught in the Chinese puzzle that is New York while we enjoy both his screwball discomfort and the certainty that it will never change.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com