In “The Sweet Escape,” French comedic filmmaker Bruno Podalydes has mastered the look of a man with his head in the clouds — a vacant-stare dreamer grounded by his dead-end desk job who resolves to set off on a solitary voyage of self-discovery. Not so much a midlife crisis as the sort of middle-class indulgence afforded to white men with no greater dramatic problems to concern them, Podalydes’ patience-straining excursion amounts to an uneventful kayak ride downstream, rendered in the gentle, sunny style of an Alexander Payne movie, minus the laughs. (The jokes are there, but prove either too broad or too French to translate.) Passed over by Cannes in a year crowded with Gallic gems, the unassuming pic should do fine at home, but won’t get much farther than Podalydes’ easily distracted character does.
At 50, Michel (Podalydes) has spent the better part of his life daydreaming about the death-defying runs of classic airmail pilots, as described in “The Little Prince” author Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s other novel, “Night Flight.” Buying into the romantic notion that men come to know their true character when braving the dangerous skies on solo runs, Michel dons leather jacket and white flight scarf when riding his scooter home to his comfortable west-of-Paris home (in the Celle-Saint-Cloud suburbs), whose every wall is decorated with vintage airmail memorabilia.
One day at work, his boss (played by the director’s brother, Comedie Francaise-consecrated actor Denis Podalydes) instructs his team to think in terms of palindromes, an exercise that leads the obsessive-minded (but otherwise empty-headed) Michel to the word “kayak.” A kayak isn’t so different from an airmail plane, he muses, surreptitiously ordering first a manual and then the actual boat for himself — not so easy to keep hidden from his wife (the great Sandrine Kiberlain), and not nearly as funny to maneuver indoors as Podalydes pretends.
At the risk of political correctness, the comedy here is strictly limited to the domain of older, privileged white men: a mix of daft physical humor (the kayak gets stuck almost immediately, and Michel must call his wife to rescue him) and ultra-mild situational gags (he makes it no farther than a rustic cafe a few kilometers downstream, which serves as a commune of sorts for various eccentric wayfarers). There are a few too many clumsy jokes about Michel’s naive over-preparedness, from the Disney Junior Woodchucks manual he consults beforehand to the obnoxious electronic-squealing mosquito-repellent device he brings along.
Meanwhile, only the French, with their more open-minded views of monogamy and extramarital dabbling, could fully appreciate the way Michel starts to lust after the restaurant’s widowed owner (Agnes Jaoui) and vulnerable young waitress (Vimala Pons), managing to bed each with different degrees of success. The mystery here is how Bruno Podalydes manages to reconcile his premise, in which his onscreen counterpart seems so eager to ditch his overly comfortable existence for an adventure, with the fact that Michel loses interest almost immediately, preferring to loll about drinking absinthe and lie about his progress to his wife — who seems to be indulging an adventure of her own offscreen, judging by the GPS stamps on her text messages.
At any rate, “The Sweet Escape” hardly delivers the journey Michel claims to have wanted so badly at the outset — not that he needs near-death obstacles (a la “All Is Lost” or “127 Hours”) to make things interesting, although that certainly wouldn’t have hurt. It’s just asking an awful lot of audiences to care about a daydreamer who barely seems capable of keeping his eyes open onscreen. And what can viewers possibly do but shrug at the final scenes, which aren’t so much an ending as a surrender, long after the film’s vaguely “Walden”-like premise has fallen by the wayside?
Production values are fine, though the pic’s appealingly luminous look comes at the expense of heavy tampering in post-production, yielding blown-out backgrounds and wild variation in its primary-color scheme (red shirt, yellow dress, blue kayak), since most of the film was shot in the shade, but has been brightened enough to suggest it all took place in full sun.