Loosely entertaining feature tends to steer off course, though strong perfs help keep it in tow.

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A gang of thirty- to fortysomethings and the “Little White Lies” they tell one another are the subject of actor-cum-filmmaker Guillaume Canet’s loosely entertaining third feature. Modeling itself on “The Big Chill,” and boasting a similar all-star soundtrack, pic follows seven friends on vacation after their buddy suffers a tragic accident, causing laughs, tears and hidden sexual agendas to rise to the surface. With its bloated running time and tonal shifts, the story tends to steer off course, though strong perfs help keep it in tow. “Lies” may not outperform the helmer’s “Tell No One” abroad, but should do ample homeland biz.

Structured around a mutual friend’s disappearance and featuring oodles of classic songs from the ’60s and ’70s, “Little White Lies” has plenty in common with the 1983 Lawrence Kasdan film, bringing some of France’s finest young actors into a generational ensemble dramedy. In that respect, writer-director Canet hits his mark, and early scenes offer up an energetic and often amusing ride down buddy lane. But with a meandering 2½-hour edit that could easily lose a reel or two, the fun gives way to several longueurs midway through, while certain plot points seem conventional — even conservative — compared with the looser ’80s attitudes of “The Big Chill.”

An opening, De Palma-esque sequence suggests the pic will be stylistically daring, but the widescreen camerawork by regular d.p. Christophe Offenstein eventually subsides into lots of closeups and handheld coverage. In a Parisian nightclub, we’re introduced to party man Ludo (Jean Dujardin), who takes off in the wee morning hours on his scooter, where he’s blindsided by a truck. Lying between life and death in the hospital, Ludo is visited by his band of longtime pals, who decide that the gruesome crash shouldn’t prevent them from embarking on their coveted summer holidays. (Coma or not, vacations in France are sacred.)

Prior to the trip, another major problem arises when one of the friends, chiropractor Vincent (Benoit Magimel), confesses his attraction to nervous-wreck restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet); their initial tete-a-tete is one of the film’s comic highlights. Both are married, and Max clearly isn’t game, so when they arrive later with their families at his pristine seaside cottage, tensions are sky-high. The group’s stress level is further goosed by pot-smoking rebel Marie (Marion Cotillard), lovesick actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche) and the even more lovesick Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), all of whom are suffering from failed or failing relationships.

With all of these neurotics thrown together in one house, things are bound to explode — though it takes a long time for that to happen. In between, the narrative languishes with repeated gags involving boating and water sports, too many musical interludes, and Vincent’s and Max’s increasingly tense confrontations, which drive Max to boil over with rage and homophobia. For a film about friends who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, Max’s aghast attitude seems particularly off-kilter, and the fact that the scenario often hinges around Vincent’s sexuality does not feel either original or pertinent in a contempo movie.

In the end, Canet manages to sketch a disjointed, occasionally effective portrait of characters who are too caught up in their own personal melodramas — in their own little lies — to be concerned with Ludo’s condition. The latter’s absence is unfortunate, as the always pleasurable Dujardin (“OSS 117″) is sparingly used, but it does give the film a certain gravitas that comes to a head in the closing scenes.

While Cluzet showcased his onscreen intensity in “Tell No One,” he’s too over-the-top here to make Max palpable. More convincing is the Zen-like Magimel (“The Piano Teacher”) and the Brat Packish duo of Lellouche and Lafitte. Cotillard offers a strong presence, though Marie’s character feels too diffuse.

Despite the overall stellar cast, the best performance may actually come from a nonactor named Joel Dupuch, playing an oyster fisherman (as he is in real life) whose wise, seafaring ways help steer the film group in the right direction.

Little White Lies

France

Production

A EuropaCorp Distribution release of a Caneo Films, Les Prods. du Tresor, EuropaCorp, M6 Films production, in association with Cofinova 6, Compagnie Cinematographique Europeenne, Panache Prods., with participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, M6, W9. (International sales: EuropaCorp, Paris.) Produced by Alain Attal. Executive producer, Hugo Selignac. Directed, written by Guillaume Canet.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Christophe Offenstein; editor, Herve de Luze; production designer, Philippe Chiffre; costume designer, Carine Sarfati; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Pierre Gamet; sound re-recording mixers, Marc Doisne, Jean-Paul Hurier; line producer, Nora Salhi; assistant director, Ludovic Bernard. Reviewed at Club 13, Paris, Aug 30, 2010. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Gala Presentations.) Running time: 154 MIN.

With

Max - Francois Cluzet Marie - Marion Cotillard Vincent - Benoit Magimel Eric - Gilles Lellouche Ludo - Jean Dujardin Antoine - Laurent Lafitte Vero - Velerie Bonneton Isabelle - Pascale Arbillot
With: Anne Marivin, Louise Monot, Joel Dupuch, Hocine Merabet, Matthieu Chedid.

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