It's summer in France, time for stressed urbanites to head to the beach and forget their problems. For the circle of friends featured in Little White Lies, however, this year's problems are a little more memorable than most.
Writer-director Guillaume Canet's moderately engaging ensemble piece begins in Paris, where coked-up charmer Ludo (The Artist's Jean Dujardin) leaves a club, climbs on a motorcycle and zooms into the path of a truck. His close friends gather at the hospital, where Ludo is in intensive care. Then they decide that tragedy or no, they must nonetheless make their annual trip to the upscale, scenic Cap Ferret home owned by one of their number, Max (Francois Cluzet).
The host, a Euro-pinching hotel and restaurant operator, is always a little uptight. Now he's even jumpier than usual, because he's just gotten some disconcerting info from another member of the gang, chiropractor Vincent (Benoit Magimel). He's not gay, the married-with-child Vincent insists, but he has developed a crush on Max.
Two of the other men are madly in love, yet arrive alone. Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) shares with everyone his obsession with his ex; Eric (Gilles Lellouche) keeps to himself the end of his latest relationship, suggesting that his girlfriend will be arriving soon.
Amour seems easier, but maybe isn't, for Marie (Marion Cotillard), a world-traveling bisexual who was once paired with Ludo. She has lovers, but not romances; in an early scene, she kicks her current beau out of bed so she can enjoy her post-coital contentment alone.
Less central roles are assigned to Max and Vincent's wives, Vero (Valerie Bonneton) and Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot); the two couple's children; and various locals. One of the last contingent who makes a large impression is Joel Dupuch, a real-life oysterman who plays a version of himself.
Canet's previous film, Tell No One, was a taut thriller with a romantic allure; it became one of the few recent foreign-language hits in American arthouses. Little White Lies might seem capable of similar success, since it boasts a strong box-office showing at home, actors who are known in the U.S. and a far-from-coincidental resemblance to The Big Chill — complete with a soundtrack full of Anglo-American rock and soul tunes, mostly circa 1966-1972. But this two-and-half-hour movie is far from taut, and its mix of laughter and tears feels forced.
In its defense, the film needs to be somewhat baggy. Tightening it would have only emphasized the plot's contrivances, while losing the lazy summer vibe that provides much of the appeal. After seeing Cotillard in the one-note roles of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, it's a pleasure to watch her unfold a complicated characterization over time — even if some of the developments are cliched.
Yet while the film's overall vibe convinces, individual notes ring false. Tell No One star Cluzet overplays his heterosexual panic, which is sublimated into various near-slapstick routines. (Max even wages a Caddyshack-like war on the weasels that have infiltrated his vacation cottage.) And the soundtrack's lineup of Isley Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie songs may have nostalgic appeal in France, but just sounds motley over here.
Little White Lies simply tries too hard. What works are its offhand moments and gentle insights, not its comic shtick and overwrought grief. Rather than crafting a French film that will appeal to Americans, Canet has made one that's altogether too Hollywood to stand out in stateside cinemas.