Alec Baldwin doesn’t get much screen time in “Paris Can Wait,” and that’s one reason the movie works. Nothing against the “SNL” hero; the character he plays is, like himself, a successful Hollywood insider. Director Eleanor Coppola is more concerned with the workaday dramas that happen backstage at an awards show, or just out of frame of a paparazzi shot. As the wife of Francis Ford and mother of Sofia, Coppola sticks to what she knows in her narrative feature debut. For the 80-year-old filmmaker (“Hearts of Darkness”), it’s a triumph worth saluting.
Baldwin is Michael, a businessman who questions every expenditure and couldn’t match his socks without his wife, Anne (Diane Lane). They plan to vacation in Paris after Michael’s latest film wraps in Turkey, but Anne decides to skip Turkey and head straight to Paris. Too distracted to be upset, Michael sends her on her way with a business partner, Jacques (Arnaud Viard).
Jacques is a quintessential Frenchman: He’s charming, handsome, and steadfast in his love of country, especially its food and wine. He is introduced, wordlessly, when he charters a car with Anne and Michael in the back seat: Every time the car stops, Jacques reaches out his passenger window to buy sausage, strawberries, or chocolates from roadside vendors. Proclaiming it “the best in all of France!”, he passes the bounty to the couple, whose polite smiles grow more strained with each provision.
The circumstances by which Jacques becomes Anne’s personal chauffeur to Paris are murky but unimportant. Anne herself doesn’t quite understand why they don’t just take a train instead of Jacques’ faded-blue antique car, which proves to be (much like its owner) as unreliable as it is charming. Our ripened roué gently coerces Anne into taking the scenic route, claiming she hasn’t lived until she’s driven through the South of France. His schtick would be more irritating if Anne wasn’t so amusedly skeptical, rolling her eyes while admiring the aqueducts. Jacques plies her with sights the way another man might with drink.
Anne won’t be so easily had. Lane plays her at a safe remove, and spends most of the film vacillating between a gently furrowed brow and a reluctantly coquettish smile. This is not a film about a charming man, but the charm of man who thinks he is charming. Her true feelings about the man remain opaque; through a phone call with a friend, we learn that while she isn’t fully buying Jacques’ sincerity, she does find him handsome.
Viand plays Jacques with a sincere joie de vivre and Coppola keeps us guessing as to his true aims: There is something devious in the way Jacques orders the finest wine and then asks for Anne’s credit card, steps out to take hushed phone calls, and knows a beautiful woman in every port in Provence. Like a fine conversation, which her solid script mostly delivers, Coppola keeps the tension in the air like a lightly bouncing ball.
She spends a little too much time on the photogenic food and drink, endowing Anne with a gimmicky interest in photography. She snaps Jacques through the lens of her point-and-shoot camera, giving the angle of his profile as much thought as the composition of her roasted carrots. The emphasis on fine dining might strike some as elitist and out of touch, but it’s a position “Paris Can Wait” embraces. How much is Jacques interested in Anne for her credit card, and how much can she learn from him in the meantime? At the heart of its cliched premise of a road trip to self-discovery is another cliche: The lesson to stop and smell the roses. (Or in this case, drink the vino). That lesson, like the charm of a restrained romance that unfolds over a few days on the road in Europe, is one that never gets old.
“Paris Can Wait” is currently playing in select theaters nationwide.