REVIEW: Vanessa Paradis, Romain Duris Sparkle in Romcom-Done-Right Heartbreaker

Movieline Score: 8

American romantic comedies have become so dismal over the past 20 years that it wouldn't be hard for even the Romanian film industry to show us up. I'm still waiting for the great Romanian romantic comedy (and hey, it could be out there), but for now, France saves the day with Heartbreaker, in which French-cinema heartthrob Romain Duris plays cupid in reverse: Friends and family members of women in lousy relationships hire him and his two-person team to incite a breakup. Duris's character, a just-scruffy-enough smoothie named Alex, moves in on these women, flattering them, charming them, and otherwise boosting their confidence to help launch them out of these unhappy unions and get them on the road to better ones.

There are some very strict ground rules to this game: Alex never offers himself to the ladies as a potential partner (he lets them down gently with an amusing canned spiel about how it's "too late" for him to love again), and he never sleeps with a client. Yet the fact that Alex's line of work is just a bit disreputable is part of the appeal of Heartbreaker -- we're not in the comfy-sweatpants romantic-comedy safety zone of, say, You've Got Mail, where everything has to be nicey-nice so no one feels threatened or insecure.

Alex enjoys his work, but he's thrown for a loop when a rich flower magnate -- who knew such a thing existed? -- hires him to bust up his daughter's engagement. Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) is a wine expert engaged to marry a rich Briton (Andrew Lincoln), a guy who's perfect both on paper and off: He's a polite, pleasant, humble fellow who just happens to have set up his own foundation to fight world hunger. That means he's rich and selfless. Even so, in his aristocratic blandness he's all wrong for Juliette, which becomes obvious when the suave, freewheeling Alex shows up at her side, posing as a bodyguard. He's studied her profile carefully: Because Dirty Dancing is her favorite movie, he learns all of Patrick Swayze's dance moves. And because she's nuts about George Michael, he pops "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" on the car stereo and sings along at the top of his lungs, proving that some people will do anything for love -- and money.

Juliette resists, of course, and she holds out longer than most contemporary romantic-comedy heroines do. At times there's a crackling hostility between this almost-couple that makes you wonder if she and Alex won't get together. Even though we know deep down how Heartbreaker is going to end, the picture allows us to believe there's some risk involved in this budding love affair. Director Pascal Chaumeil (making his feature debut) and screenwriters Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner and Yohan Gromb keep the story moving gingerly, and they've got some great second bananas in the expressive, googly-eyed Julie Ferrier, as Alex's sister and business partner, and François Damiens as her husband, a tech geek who dreams of being a lady killer like Alex.

The picture was shot largely in Monte Carlo, and it's a dream to look at, a sunny patchwork of luxe hotels and impossibly blue ocean views. Heartbreaker never feels strained or forced, as so many modern romantic comedies do; its multiple pieces fall into place effortlessly and pleasingly. Watching it just feels like a vacation.

And looking at the movie's two leads happens to be pretty painless, too. Duris, with his stubbly lantern jaw, is appealing precisely because he's not afraid to be goofy: At first Alex looks a little embarrassed to be rehearsing those Patrick Swayze moves. But before long, he's working them as if they were second nature, and his face betrays the fact that he's secretly enjoying himself. And Paradis -- a huge pop star in France, although in the U.S. she may be best known as Johnny Depp's partner -- is simply a charmer. She's a flirty, birdlike presence, but she doesn't overplay the coquette routine: When it's time for Juliette to dig in and do the hard and scary work of falling in love, Paradis' features seem to become even softer and more vulnerable. Plus, she has one of the rarest treasures in a world of movies that have largely been enhanced and "fixed" by modern dentistry: A killer gap-toothed smile. Duris is handsome, all right; but when Paradis flashes that smile, you know how the movie got its name.