The kind of movie that makes a pejorative of words like "tasteful" and "intelligent," Anthony Minghella's "Breaking and Entering" arrives just in time to give the faint-hearted a refuge from the untidy pleasures of "Casino Royale" and "Borat." The latest from the director of "The English Patient" is a high-minded stew of romantic discord, family dysfunction, class tension, and multiculti politics that labors mightily to justify its relevance. Seeing as it's now December, it was only a matter of time before a prestige picture came along to remind us of how dreary the art house can be during awards season.
Jude Law plays Will Francis, an architect who has just opened a swanky new office in a dicey London neighborhood. A robbery on opening night jump-starts the narrative. When the police can't solve the crime, Will ends up staking out the place himself. In the course of his mission, he makes the acquaintance of a Russian prostitute (a wasted Vera Farmiga), chases down a 15-year-old acrobat/thief (Rafi Gavron), falls in love with a Bosnian seamstress (Juliette Binoche), and reconciles with his Swedish girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn). Perhaps earlier drafts had subplots involving Hungarian blacksmiths and Galician fishermen - such is Minghella's determination to make his point about a London in flux.
Against this tapestry, Minghella makes hackneyed observations about families and relationships. Trapped in a non-marriage with his girlfriend of ten years, golden-boy Will is still the top dog of this new England. When it's not tripping over Minghella's trite dialogue ("There's a part of me that's so dark"), the movie actually threatens to make acute insights about power - who has it (still), who doesn't - in a borderless world. Indeed, when Will withholds the hand of mercy from his pleading Bosnian lover late in the film, Minghella almost stumbles upon a compelling critique.
But "Breaking and Entering" is ultimately gutless-and arid, too. Perhaps its one unqualified pleasure is the welcome appearance of "The Office"'s Martin Freeman, who does a funny bit with a handshake near the end that casts the humorlessness of the proceedings in stark relief. As a director, Minghella is not without merit: he's given some thought into how to express his ideas in pictures (see, for instance, the use of mirrors and glass). But Minghella the writer has no interesting ideas to express; for all of his plot's convolutions, he's really just spinning his wheels in the mud of Western liberal guilt. Binoche's presence can't help but recall two superior and similarly themed movies, Michael Haneke's "Code Unknown" and "Cache." Unlike Haneke, however, Minghella gives his characters - and us - an out, ending his movie with a redemption that only the rich and complacent can buy.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer and is also a frequent contributor to the New Republic Online.