By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 10, 2014 at 2:57PM
With his recent features "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet!" and "Wild Grass," French New Wave legend Alain Resnais showed a continuing flair for cinematic ingenuity. Unfortunately, with "Life of Riley," the filmmaker vanishes into the static nature of the stage play that provides the movie with its source material. Resnais' third treatment of a work by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (following 1993's "Smoking/No Smoking" and 2006' "Private Fears In Public Places") is his least distinctive project in years. While the French-language, York-set comedy achieves some mild entertainment value from the play's appeal and its engaging cast, "Life of Reilly" is largely a superfluous footnote to the lofty career of its nonagenarian director.
By remaining faithful to the material, "Life of Riley" displays a certain oddball charm in its mixture of neurotic characters and one notable absence -- namely, the figure of George Riley, who remains an abstraction and never appears onscreen. Instead, the terminally ill man is the focus for various people affected by his life: His best friend, the middle-aged Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), urges George's estranged young wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlaine) to return to her ailing husband during the final six months of his life; meanwhile, George's doctor Colin (Hipolyte Giradot) attempts to obscure news of George's illness from his gossipy wife (Sabine Azema, Resnais' wife and frequent muse), who spends much of her time reflecting on her easygoing life with Jack's equally chatty partner (Caroline Sibol). The scenario contains sitcom-ready simplicity -- though Akyckbourn's dialogue aims for subtle humor more than belly laughs, resulting in a subdued, meandering observational portrait on the wavelength of its low-key performances.
Resnais follows suit. The gimmick of George's impact on others provides the sole object of intrigue as the movie drifts through one act to another over the course of its eight-month span. Aside from B-roll of York streets and painted sets to show the exteriors of the various homes where the action takes place, "Life of Riley" unfolds on lawns and living rooms with virtually nothing cinematic to hold our attention. As the characters yammer on about their regrets and frustrations -- the women discuss their husbands' shortcomings in bed, the men talk about romantic discontent, the parents plan a sweet-16 for their absent daughter -- Resnais emphasizes the theatrical nature of the material without complicating it for the medium.
Instead, "Life of Riley" features bland attempts to resemble its roots in theater. Whenever Resnais cuts to closeups of individual characters, they appear against etched backgrounds. The minimalist set design trades doors for curtains. Setting aside a goofy fake gopher (seemingly rejected from "Caddyshack" auditions) that routinely pops its head out of the ground during scene changes, and a simplistically upbeat soundtrack that sounds like something borrowed from the same library as the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" jingle (Resnais is an avowed fan), "Life of Riley" is little more than a lightweight piece of filmed theater.
The movie´s failings especially sting during its final minutes, when an actual crane shot introduces the faintest glimmer of real filmmaking and directorial intent -- just enough to emphasize everything missing before. Of course, the play itself holds some appeal on its own terms, though Resnais' apparent disinterest in enlivening the narrative results in one art form clumsily stuffed into another. When a wistful character in "Life of Riley" waxes poetic about "the endless ebullience of youth," it's hard not to think back on Resnais' storied achievements and wish that line still applied to him as it has on his last few efforts. Maybe next time.
Criticwire Grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Unlikely to receive much of a commercial release, the film will play European festivals but may struggle to find a U.S. distributor interested in taking it on.