The story may have been ripped from personal experience, but moments of truth — or, for that matter, hilarity — are few and far between in “We’ll Never Have Paris,” a sporadically amusing, more often grating romantic comedy based on the relationship of husband-and-wife directing duo Simon Helberg (“Big Bang Theory”) and Jocelyn Towne. With Helberg (who wrote the script) cast as a hopelessly neurotic, hopefully somewhat fictionalized version of himself, struggling to win back the girlfriend (Melanie Lynskey) he carelessly tossed aside, the film means to critique its hero’s narcissism but winds up feeling more like a monument to it. Helberg fans who have always wanted to see him in a feature-length sitcom, rejoice; others need not apply, though this slickly packaged affair does seem destined to please some theatrical crowds en route to home-format exposure.
A germophobic, hypochondriacal jazz pianist with a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, Quinn Berman (Helberg) has been conceived here as an improbable romantic lead in the Woody Allen vein — specifically, that what-planet-are-we-on version of Woody Allen prone to appearing opposite women conspicuously out of his league. To wit: Quinn’s longtime girlfriend is the lovely Devon (Lynskey), to whom he’s planning to pop the question, but he hesitates when he finds out that his hot blonde co-worker, Kelsey (Maggie Grace), has developed a serious crush on him — presumably because he’s sweet, sensitive and so different from all the good-looking jerks she’s used to dating.
Fueled by his momentary lust for Kelsey, and uncertain whether he’s ready to commit to the first and only woman he’s ever been with, Quinn somehow accidentally turns a marriage proposal into a break-up proposal, prompting Devon to angrily storm out. But when Quinn’s first attempt at a sexual encounter with his new g.f. goes comically awry — predictably enough, since Kelsey isn’t a character so much as a cliche on very attractive legs — he immediately realizes his mistake and frantically tries to woo Devon back. But she’s unreceptive to his amorous gestures, especially when she finds out about his quasi-infidelity, and insists they need time apart so that they can both find themselves before even thinking about getting back together.
As the title hints, Devon will head to the City of Lights and Quinn will quickly follow, yielding a few authentic moments of emotional reckoning and romantic indecision on Devon’s part that briefly suggest the film might be headed in a more thoughtful direction. Alas, this promising development is soon wrecked by tiresome farcical complications — involving a suave, handsome French violinist (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) competing for Devon’s affections — that couldn’t be more obviously calculated to turn Quinn’s humiliation into a repellent comic spectacle. To say that the film succeeds on that front would be an understatement. But even if Helberg’s screenplay can be appreciated for its handful of glibly funny one-liners and its warts-and-all self-portraiture, the result feels more like a uniquely cringe-inducing form of self-regard.
That “We’ll Never Have Paris” is based on a true story with a happy ending (Helberg and Towne have been married for six years) is reassuring, if ultimately irrelevant to the reality of what’s onscreen. As embodied by Helberg, looking here like a shrimpy, clean-scrubbed college kid, Quinn’s neuroses aren’t particularly funny, endearing or touching; the character sucks so much life and oxygen out of every interaction, and calls such desperate attention to his neediness and emotional immaturity in every frame, as to seem entirely unfit for any sort of long-term relationship.
It scarcely helps that the filmmakers have cast Helberg opposite Lynskey, one of the most winsome actors of her generation; you never really understand what drew Devon to Quinn in the first place, and by the time it’s all over, it seems nothing short of a partial lobotomy would induce her to go back to him. But having paused to acknowledge that Devon might actually have dreams, desires and aspirations of her own, “We’ll Never Have Paris” is more or less content to sweep them under the rug — and where the women in this movie are concerned, that’s still arguably better treatment than is given to Kelsey or Leah (Meredith Hagner Fitz), another of Quinn’s mystifyingly eager sexual partners.
Adding to the pic’s sitcomish tenor is the presence of Zachary Quinto as Quinn’s smooth best friend, who pops up in every other scene or so to dispense relationship advice and/or model a colorful new wardrobe item courtesy of costume designer Rebecca Luke. Other bright spots in the cast include Alfred Molina as Quinn’s encouraging father and Judith Light as Devon’s brittle mother, both of whom make too-cursory appearances. Location shooting in Paris helps to enliven a polished but straightforward tech package.