In the raucous club scene that opens “Little White Lies,” the actor playing the obnoxious, drug-snorting lech named Ludo looks so familiar you might find yourself thinking, “Who’s that loud guy?” That guy is Jean Dujardin from “The Artist,” so at least in the U.S. loud is definitely going against type. Don’t expect him to stick around for long. He’s the one left behind in Paris (we quickly find out why) while his closest friends, all seven of them, escape for their annual vacation by the sea.
Writer/director Guillaume Canet freely admits that this comic drama about the secrets and confidences, tensions, loyalties and tangled relationships among this group inching toward 40 is inspired by “The Big Chill” and other movies, but his very appealing homage makes deja vu seem like a pretty good thing. “Little White Lies” is much slighter than Canet’s taut, first-rate thriller “Tell No One”, and it would be a miracle if it became the major hit here that it was in France, but it has a shaggy, insidious charm of its own.
Its greatest strength is the cast, which doesn’t include the director (familiar as an actor in films like Last Night with Keira Knightley). Francois Cluzet – whose versatility ranges from “Tell No One” to the quadraplegic in “The Intouchables” – is at the group’s center as Max, a control freak, restaurant owner, and the slightly older friend whose house is the setting for the vacation.
In the story’s most refreshing turn, the men, not the women, are almost all lovelorn. Antoine (Gilles Lellouche) is hung up on old girlfriend who dumped him a year ago. Vincent (Benoit Magimel), a supposedly happily married chiropractor, meets Max for a drink in Paris and in a funny, deft episode tells his pal that he has something more than a man-crush on him. The scene perfectly sets up some of the painful explosions to come. Eric, an actor, is a raffish, selfish, perpetually juvenile womanizer, yet somehow Laurent Lafitte’s sympathetic portrayal makes more than a cliche.
The women, including Max and Vincent’s wives, are pallid characters, with the exception of Marion Cotillard as Marie, an anthropologist. She’s bisexual, adventurous, Ludo’s former love interest, wracked by her own doubts and fears, yet definitely a woman and not one of the boys. (Makes sense that Canet gave his real-life love the best part.)
“Little White Lies” works because Canet shrewdly taps into the secret behind the enduring appeal of “The Big Chill”: not its characters, but the winning fantasy of a country escape filled with warm, close, not-always-easy but permanent friendship. The iconic scene of “The Big Chill” is the upbeat one in which the friends make dinner and dance to old Motown songs, a spirit Canet embraces right down to the nearly wall-to-wall nostalgia-fueled American soundtrack that includes the Isley Brothers, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater and – in a late karaoke appearance by Ludo — Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero. It’s worth remembering that “The Big Chill” began with a funeral, because after all the fraught coming together, splitting apart and soul-searching, “Little White Lies” jolts us with a weepy ending that it has actually earned.
Running two-and-a-half hours, the film is far too long, and is ultimately as shallow as it sketchily-written characters. Yet Canet’s warm, ensemble piece engages us right through to it final visceral punch.