Though it tries awfully hard to sound different, English-language jazz dramedy “Lullaby for Pi” is a song we’ve heard way too many times before. Debuting Gallic helmer Benoit Philippon’s French-Canadian co-production — about a grieving musician who falls for an artsy nymph he meets in a hotel — is tiresomely offbeat yet never convinces as a love story, while its jazzman portrait is as cliched as they come. Despite decent turns by Rupert Friend (“Pride and Prejudice”) and Clemence Poesy (the “Harry Potter” films), “Lullaby” will see sleepy action during its minor French release. Overseas biz should be strictly video.
Since the death of his girlfriend, Josephine (Sarah Wayne Callies), for unknown reasons, down-and-out singer-pianist Sam (Friend) has retired from the music scene and spends his time sitting around the hotel room where he and Josephine first fell in love. Hoping the deceased will somehow call him up on the phone, he waits there in a rut until one day, the gorgeous, mysterious Pi (Poesy) comes crashing through the door (again, for unknown reasons) and decides to lock herself in Sam’s bathroom.
Thus, the couple’s quirky courtship begins, and then drags on and on in scenes that alternate among their whimsical conversations across the bathroom door, Sam’s slow return to the stage, and Pi’s “art,” which involves Polaroids, wall writing and, in one case, a sledgehammer. Inevitably, past demons come back to haunt the lovebirds, who harness their creative skills to overcome the issues holding back their happiness.
Clearly struggling with what’s supposed to sound like authentic American repartee, writer-director Philippon (who co-scripted the 2002 French thriller “Sweat”) provides plenty of boilerplate exchanges between the sprightly, often nonsensical Pi and the near-cartoonish tortured musician, who’s forever dressed in a crumpled jacket, hat and tie (which makes Friend the Englishman look more like Pete Doherty than like Bill Evans). Such jive makes the storyline difficult to stomach, and what could have been a moving tale of a man dealing with grief gets lost in the failed efforts to depict downtown coolness.
If the talk is hardly credible, the music, including cuts by singer-songwriter Charlie Winston (who performs in at least one scene) offers an elementary mix of spoken-word ramblings (“I’m in love with a bathroom,” Sam intones during one cringe-worthy performance at a hip-hop club) or else routine, unmemorable ballads. Even the settings — which are meant to be New York but can hardly be mistaken for the substitute cities (in this case, Regina and Winnipeg) where the film was shot — rotate among the typical hotel room, jazz club and back alleyway.
Friend and Poesy perform well enough in problematic roles but never really sound as if they’re from Manhattan, or America for that matter — a fact the narrative ignores completely. As a cheerful hotel clerk, Forest Whitaker doesn’t provide much in terms of comic relief, while other supporting roles add little authenticity to the mix.
Colorful widescreen lensing by vet d.p. Michel Amathieu (“Someone I Loved”) is a plus.