Marion (Julie Delpy) has broken up with Jack and now lives with their child in New York. Picking up a few years down the line, Marion's new beau is Mingus (Chris Rock), a radio host and journalist, whose life will be upended by a two-day visit from Marion's French family. The different cultural backgrounds held by her American boyfriend, her eccentric father and his sister Rose make for an explosive mix.
The movies are too often accused of being not like life. Now that kind of assertion is meant to be a criticism; it seems intended to drive a stake through cinema’s heart and its craven desire for escapism and fantasy (when in fact, escapism and fantasy at times is the point.)
the film will undoubtedly squeeze the bad-taste threshold of some punters
Still, there are some film fantasies that have a clanging resemblance to our waking life. Case in point: the comedy that casts the extended family as combatants in a war zone. In other words, in the movies family are almost always a pain.
Of course, there is a conventional wisdom in the movie business (and life) that says happy families are boring and all the best families must quarrel – if only to make up by the fade out – and sadly for most, that’s an 'ending’ and a fantasy that’s only ever possible in the movies.
Director Julie Delpy’s new comedy, 2 Days in New York, a more bitter than sweet sequel to her 2 Days in Paris, writes family conflict larger than life and at times it indeed has a stinging truth about it, found in amongst the knockabout humour and cultural cringe gags. Its premise is based on the somewhat unhealthy idea that, like death and taxes, 'family’ must be endured because we have no choice. The movie’s moral is a conventional piety; space and acceptance allows all to thrive and family life is a story of renewal not decay. That’s a nice thought, but the movie isn’t. Take that as a caution or an approximation of style and tone and not a rebuke.
Delpy plays Marion, an artist, married to Mingus (Chris Rock), a talk show host. They live in a New York that’s alive with colour and beauty and spoiled by nosey neighbours. The plot is about what happens when Marion’s family arrive from France on the eve of her new art show where she intends to auction off 'her soul’ to the highest bidder.
One of the film’s principal gags is that Mingus – and by extension the entire metropolis of New York – is not quite prepared for the 'Frenchness’ of Marion’s people. Of course, Marion’s folks are equally 'ill-equipped’ for their New York encounter. There’s her father Jeannot (Albert Delpy, Delpy’s real father), an over-sized character in all respects who makes a stream of impossible demands and who specialises in a particularly irritating form of social and cultural obliviousness. Also on the trip is Marion’s sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), who has dragged along her boyfriend, Manu (Alex Nahon). Marion describes Rose as a 'nymphomaniac’, but on the evidence here, she is merely sexually over-confident, flirty and obnoxious. Meanwhile, Manu is casually racist and perhaps mentally unstable. (He’s the arthouse equivalent of a 'cringe-character’ in, say, a Judd Apatow comedy.)
Indeed, the film will undoubtedly squeeze the bad-taste threshold of some punters; there are gags about cancer, cunnilingus, and child-abuse. It’s Marion who is the 'fall-guy’ for these jokes. A neurotic, with a penchant for white lies, Marion’s habit is like a bad debt that stalks her throughout the movie.
Much of the main action centres on Marion’s long held and hard to budge grievances over her relationship with her sister. Rose has an opinion (often base-less), on, well, just about anything. Marion’s way of coping is to throw a tantrum – which is spectacularly funny.
As a counterpoint to the fighting sisters, Manu and Jeannot are the light relief; they tear around New York in a daze of bewilderment and wonder and make subtitled fun of everything they see and hear.
Episodic and sluggishly paced, 2 Days in New York has no drive and no story tension and for some that won’t matter since the film’s manic energy seems to derive from the fact that everyone here talks fast and loud and often (and then there’s the slapstick, the double-entendres and sight-gags). Still, I thought the joke quotient low.
I don’t think Delpy or her co-writer Landeau care about plot mechanics. And Delpy’s direction is about giving the characters plenty of room. The movie is a series of set pieces and Delpy – confident that all here are hilarious – shamelessly indulges the cast and those punters keen on travel-porn and toothless jokes about the ever-changing pop fashions of New York. Delpy’s confidence is rewarded; the city here looks alive and very different from, say, Woody Allen’s New York. And all the actors are fine, especially Rock, whose comic highpoint comes when he delivers a soliloquy outlining his family anguish to a life-size portrait of Barack Obama he keeps in his office.
The film, though, is not all quarrelsome fun (and often it isn’t fun at all). Delpy smartly assumes that all this nasty talk can and does produce true welts of raw emotion and every so often she dials down the farce so a murmur of real hurt can be heard.