There was a time when we felt safe assuming the course of our lives would be predictable -- courtship in our teens and 20s, we’d align ourselves with a career, marriage and kids by our 30s and "settle down" by 40.
But maybe that’s changing, evolving right before our eyes.
That’s the larger subtext of "Chinese Puzzle," the new French film, third in a series (we can’t really call it a "trilogy") featuring those randy, open-minded Europeans of "L’auberge Espagnole" ("The Spanish Inn").
Back in 2002, Xavier (Romain Duris) had his eyes opened by the diverse peers whose lives he got mixed up in while studying in Barcelona. By the time "Russian Doll" (2005) rolled around, Xavier had become a writer, just not the one he wanted to be, and catching up with his friends (Audrey Tautou, Cecile De France and Kelly Reilly among them) reminded him of how unsettled life still was.
"Chinese Puzzle" captures this coterie as they hit 40. They’ve dug through the nesting "Russian Dolls" and settled down. With kids.
Xavier is now 40, a novelist struggling with his latest book. He’s married to Wendy (Reilly). They have two kids. He thinks they’re happy.
But just as his editor warns him that "Happiness is a disaster in fiction," Wendy abruptly wants out. She’s taking the kids and moving to New York. A bit of mulling that separation from his children, realizing that he has a friend in New York already -- Isabelle (De France) -- makes Xavier pack up his laptop and narrate himself to the Big Apple.
"Pinned to the ground," Xavier observes (in French, with English subtitles), "you see that New York’s obsession is the sky."
Writer-director Cedric Klapisch revels in the uncivilized cacophony of New York, the vast array of cultures (Latino, Hasidic, Chinese) and subcultures (aged rockers) Xavier encounters as he tries to find an apartment.
The funny fish-out-of-water stuff comes from Xavier’s experience with a comically cut-rate New York lawyer, haggling over custody, figuring out whether to make his stay Green Card legal or on the down-low. Xavier fantasizes himself a French Renaissance man, bickering with Hegel, but reality is kiddie play dates in the park, feuding with his ex over schools and school uniforms and trying to do the sperm donor thing for his lesbian pal Isabelle and keep her wandering eye a secret from her significant other, Ju (Sandrine Holt).
The "Puzzle" here is the interconnected lives and interwoven cultures Xavier comes to understand living in Chinatown, trying to trick the Immigration and Naturalization Service and wondering what might have been as Martine (Tautou) comes to visit.
There’s nothing new in "Puzzle," no new situations and only a few truly novel observations about New York, America, sperm donorship or turning 40. That makes the movie a bit of a drag at close to two hours. Some situations feel forced and arbitrary. And the ending has a whiff of "How I Met Your Mother" cheating about it.
But what holds our interest and holds the story together is this winning cast in these familiar, lovable (somewhat) roles. A dozen years on and this exercise in globe-trotting, in "We’re growing older, but not up" reminds us that what’s true in life is just as true in casting movies -- pick your friends carefully enough and they’ll entertain you for a lifetime.
Rated R for sexual content, nudity and language.