Eleven years after his Franglais smash “L’auberge espagnole” and eight years after sequel “Russian Dolls,” French writer-helmer Cedric Klapisch follows up with the zesty “Chinese Puzzle,” a New York-set comedy that serves as a seductive advertisement for modern urban living. Retaining the energy and zing of the earlier films but dialing down the youthful angst, the pic delivers witty, sexy fare that’s the fast-food equivalent of Richard Linklater’s thematically weightier “Before … ” trilogy. Given the presence of international marquee names including Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, its appeal to auds isn’t tricky to puzzle out.
While “L’auberge” was largely set in Barcelona, at an Erasmus educational program that mixed students of different nationalities, and “Dolls” pinged characters across various European cities, this time the action unfolds almost wholly in New York City. That’s where Englishwoman Wendy (Kelly Reilly) shacks up with her new American beau (Peter Hermann), taking the two young children (Pablo Mugnier-Jacob, Margaux Mansart) she had with French partner Xavier (Duris). He follows from Paris in hot pursuit, initially moving in with their old Belgian pal Isabelle (Cecile de France), who lives in a spacious, funky Brooklyn loft with her Chinese-American girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt). Cozily, Isabelle is pregnant thanks to a sperm donation from Xavier.
By no means short of narrative incident, “Chinese Puzzle” successfully keeps multiple balls in the air, including tensions between Wendy and Xavier over their offspring’s schooling; Xavier’s green-card marriage to the Chinese-American niece (Li Jun Li) of a taxi driver he rescues after a road-rage episode; Xavier’s apartment hunt, bicycle-courier job and Skype sessions with his Paris-based book editor over the progress of his new novel; Isabelle’s affair with a pretty babysitter (Flore Bonaventura); and most of all visits by another Erasmus alumnus, Xavier’s old flame Martine (Tautou), who has two young children of her own (Amin Djakliou, Clara Abbasi).
Bringing an appreciative outsider’s perspective to the sights, sounds and polyglot energy of New York, Klapisch and his collaborators ensure that the two hours whiz by decoratively and entertainingly, buoyed by the jazzy, soulful, vocal-driven score of Christophe Minck and Loik Dury, both returning from “Russian Dolls.” Playful devices, including the fantasy appearances of famous European philosophers imparting words of wisdom, work well in the mix, and there’s a well-executed comic setpiece in which Tautou unleashes her fluent Mandarin to a roomful of Chinese investors.
Modern life may be complicated, but it’s nothing to get stressed about: That’s the alluring message this time around, and the film benefits from the more relaxed mode achieved by these maturing characters. In real life, none of the actors have reached the age (40) that’s suggested by the script, indicating a generosity of spirit on their part that chimes with the film’s contagious mood. Neatly climaxing with a conventionally upbeat romantic-comedy pairing, Klapisch’s freewheeling story now seems to have arrived at its natural conclusion. Stellar box-office receipts — France and Belgium are set to go first, on Dec. 4 — could dictate otherwise.