Writer-director Tonie Marshall’s latest romantic comedy gets “Off and Running” in a lively start, but loses its breath midway through and barely makes it across the finish line. Stars Nathalie Baye and Edouard Baer are convincing enough as an unlikely pair caught up in an international arms conspiracy, but their promising Frank Capra-esque encounter is cut short by a flimsy plot that leaves little room for laughs. Pic stumbled in its mid-April opening but should find sturdier local legs in ancillary. Offshore prospects look bronze at best.
While her 1999 hit, “Venus Beauty Institute,” combined an everyday setting with quirky characters to critical and audience acclaim, Marshall hasn’t managed to repeat the recipe. This time around, her poor-boy-meets-rich-girl-on-the-road scenario seems directly culled from Capra’s “It Happened One Night,” though the BMW ride from Paris to Locarno is a far cry from the New York-Miami bus trip in the 1934 classic.
Early scenes are promising, with unemployed magician Darry (Baer) on the run from his nut-job brother-in-law (French rapper Joey Starr). Before fleeing town, Darry leaves his Alzheimer’s-ridden mother (Bulle Ogier) at a psychiatric institute, where he meets sexually charged patient Sonia (Melanie Bernier).
On a quiet country road, Darry crosses paths with Irene (Nathalie Baye), a high-class mistress carrying a designer bag full of cash and a cell phone ringing with calls from ex-lovers. One of them is a French minister (Guy Marchand) mixed up in an illegal Korean arms deal, against whom Irene holds incriminating evidence.
Rich opening dialogues between Darry and Irene are filled with classic screwball repartee, and thesps Baye and Baer hit all the right marks. But the script takes a turn for the worse when the duo hit the road, as the details of Irene’s blackmail overwhelm the rest of the narrative, yielding few comic results.
A recurring joke has Irene’s Korean lover (Park Jung-hak) obsessed with Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which hits the soundtrack so many times that the filmmakers seem to be screaming for Hollywood romantic-comedy status. Other repeated gags, such as Darry’s growing relationship with Sonia, will only work for those viewers who find Tourette’s syndrome drop-dead hysterical.
Closing Locarno-based scenes offer up decent visuals but fail to tie up an intrigue that already lost its way somewhere in the Rhone Valley.
Tech package is above average, with pleasant widescreen lensing by d.p. Christophe Offenstein (“Tell No One”) and an upbeat score by Jerome Rebotier (“Tender Souls”). French title “Passe-passe” refers to Darry’s numerous acts of sleight-of-hand, which thesp Baer pulls off with whimsical efficiency.