REVIEW: Dinner Party is a Bust in Undercooked Change of Plans

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Middling, middle-class entertainment aimed at the midpoint between comedy and drama, mass appeal and sophistication, Change of Plans is eager to please and easy to dismiss. Riffing on a familiar premise, director Daniele Thompson (Avenue Montaigne, Jet Lag), working from a script she wrote with her son Christopher Thompson, puts 10 Parisian professionals together for a dinner party and lets the sparks, secrets and passions fly. Spouses bicker, kisses are stolen and home design is silently judged.

Yet identifying the film as another bourgeois indulgence needn't be a condemnation. Critics suddenly become Karl Marx when it comes to face-value depictions of the wine-and-cheese set, dropping the guillotine at every glimpse of marble countertops or recessed lighting -- quelle horreur! Some of the best and smartest films, from City Lights to L'Enfant, explore the ways in which we're all defined by class, but we needn't ask every film to restate or push against those definitions every time out. Alas, Thompson's film suffers from a different sense of entitlement -- despite an appealing, committed cast ruminating on life and love from first to last, Change of Plans has very little to say.

It's the first day of summer, and high-powered attorney ML (Karin Viard, a walking conflict of angles and curves), preps for a dinner party at her recently renovated apartment while her unemployed husband, Piotr (Dany Boon), stirs together a Polish meal fit for 10. As one might expect -- and as the premise requires -- all is not well in their marriage. Operating on different planes from which each judges the other, Piotr leisurely searches for a new career as ML schemes for a better job at a bigger firm. Ostensibly primary characters, neither ML nor Piotr emerge as protagonists with privileged points of view, thus leaving the party without a true host, and the movie wholly dependent on a web of contrived connections.

ML has just broken off an affair with her interior designer, Jean-Louis (Laurent Stocker), who nevertheless appears, amorous and petulant, at the party, while Piotr perks up when a foxy old flame, Sarah (Emmanuelle Seigner), shows up on the arm of ML's slick professional suitor, Lucas (Thompson the younger). Meanwhile ML's friend and gynecologist Melanie (Marina Foïs) spends the evening rehearsing how she'll leave her physician husband, Alain (Patrick Bruel), for a jockey. ML's younger sister, Juliette (Marina Hands), arrives with her elder lover Erwann (Patrick Chesnais), but threatens to bolt when she learns that her estranged father, Henri (Pierre Arditti), has been staying at ML's apartment. Finally there's ML's flamenco teacher, Manuela (Blanca Li), who arrives late and plays the ignorant, idealistic outsider in a room thick with festering resentments.

Thompson depicts the dinner party as a sub-Altman tangle of crosstalk, floating from one conversation to another as befits plot deployment rather than the random energy of 10 adults chatting around a table. The mess of life is conveyed as an orderly succession of details, all fluidly captured and scored to smooth-jazz saxophone. Without a sense of exploration or genuine curiosity, the film becomes a tableau of diverting scenes and performances. Seigner softens the edges of her fierce beauty and suggests an inner bounty that the script does not. Bruel imbues a genial bore with flickers of warmth and sadness, and his onscreen partner Foïs, with her pregnant pauses and steely reserve, signals a complex heroine that might have been. Tellingly, the film's best scene is a throwaway, featuring old coots Chesnais and Arditti sneaking out for a smoke and ending up hand-in-hand in a girl's bedroom, dancing an exuberant jitterbug.

About halfway through the dinner -- and halfway through the film -- action jumps forward a calendar year. What's at first an intriguing narrative rupture -- we're removed from the table just as we're starting to get acclimated -- is quickly and neatly snapped back in place. Thompson can't bear to let us wonder at what's happened in the interim, instead cycling through each coupling or re-coupling and flashing back to the initial dinner for clarification and poignancy. If they only knew what lay ahead. If they only knew that their futures would feel so dispiriting. Pregnancy, divorce, vehicular tragedy, spiritual and sexual awakenings -- these are somehow anticlimaxes, mounted evidence toward a shrugging, "que sera, sera" finale. One year after their dinner, the characters gather for a ridiculous group flamenco, all seemingly changed (or chastened) by time and circumstance, and all just as mildly concocted and moderately undercooked as before.



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