Writer Geert Heetebrij and director Helmut Schleppi’s “A Foreign Affair” is built around a real Web site (aforeignaffair.net) that organizes European romance tours for American bachelors seeking foreign brides. But pic isn’t nearly as crass as the product-placement premise makes it sound. In fact, it’s anything but a ringing endorsement of its Internet-matchmaking sponsor, finding much to be skeptical about at the idea of love-at-first-byte. Slight, but charming pic, acquired for U.S. release during Cannes market by Innovation Film Group, should attract some attention thanks to its odd premise and winning cast, but seems a much surer bet for ancillary success. Pic is an odd concoction: an English-language movie made by Dutch filmmakers working with an American cast on location in Russia and Mexico. That strangeness, combined with sharp casting and affectionate performances, is a big part of “Affair’s” charm.
On a farm, somewhere in the Western U.S. (though South-of-the-border filming doesn’t quite match), brothers Jake (Tim Blake Nelson) and Josh (David Arquette) must find a replacement who can assume the cooking, cleaning and other housekeeping duties that have gone undone since their mom (Lois Smith) recently died.
Since the brothers don’t have the money to hire help, Jake decides he and Josh need a wife — and can make do with one woman to look after them both. When efforts to find a game local girl fail, Jake discovers the Foreign Affair Web site at the local library, with help from amusingly played librarian Allyce Beasley.
Before long, the brothers are off to St. Petersburg to meet a series of prospective brides –and the scenes in which Jake interviews his finalists are among the funniest in the film. Meanwhile, for Josh, who’s always lived life in his older brother’s protective shadow, Russia is a bold revelation — he emerges from his dreary, unkempt shell and decides he wants a girl he loves rather than one Jake finds acceptable.
It’s fun to watch the talented Arquette go through Josh’s transformation, shedding his baggy, farm-boy overalls in favor of Euro-chic partywear in his comically self-serious bridal pursuit. Nelson does a minor variation on the twangy, down-home Southerner routine he’s perfected in movies like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Holes.” Director Schleppi keeps the audience at a distance from the characters; there’s no sense of what’s going on inside their heads and hearts. It takes a wonderful turn from Emily Mortimer (“Lovely and Amazing,” “Young Adam”) playing a TV journo making a docu about the romance tour experience to keep up interest enough to get to the cleverly orchestrated surprises in pic’s final moments.
With her cautious approach to the tour itself and to Jake (whom she finds herself falling for), Mortimer’s Angela is the calm at the center of “A Foreign Affair’s” irrational storm; she gives the whole airy enterprise some weight. And the disarming, hilarious excerpts from Angela’s documentary (composed of real interviews conducted by Mortimer with real Foreign Affair customers during the making of the film) are by far the best thing in the movie.
Pic’s production values veer toward minimalist, though “Northfork” d.p. M. David Mullen’s video lensing makes tidy use of some scenic Russian locales.