It’s fair to say that most everyone with an active cell-phone life has used those indispensable gadgets in ways not meant for public consumption. Never before have secret lives been so easy to negotiate, yet the risk of discovery, even if you’re not Jennifer Lawrence, has never been greater: It’s all there in that little device. Paolo Genovese’s “Perfect Strangers” plays on this near-universal fear via a party game in which dinner guests share all incoming messages and calls in a recipe for awkward revelations. Never mind that the film itself is an unsubtle chat fest stocked with immature characters; because it’s so tuned to the zeitgeist of the bourgeoisie, it’s become a major talking point in Italy, where it’s doing boffo business. Remakes in other languages seem virtually assured.
The helmer made his name at home with a number of good-natured if hardly deep comedies with wide cross-generational appeal; thematically this, his tenth feature, appears to be a more biting commentary on contemporary society, but the script fails to go beyond the superficial. It’s also intensely wordy, neatly fitting in to the minor vogue for single location dramedies such as Polanski’s “Carnage.” “Strangers” begins in multiple settings, but the bulk of the action takes place in one apartment.
Eva (Kasia Smutniak) and Rocco (Marco Giallini) are having friends over for dinner, though tension is high at home after Eva rifles through the handbag of teen daughter Sophia (Benedetta Porcaroli) and finds condoms. Mother-daughter communication is not their strong suit, and besides, guests are coming.
Lele (Valerio Mastandrea) and Carlotta (Anna Foglietta) express little warmth towards each other, which may explain her drinking problem. Sexual sparks aren’t an issue for Bianca (Alba Rohrwacher) and Cosimo (Edoardo Leo), relatively new at the marriage game and frequently frisky. Beppe (Giuseppe Battiston) was meant to finally present his new girlfriend, but he arrives alone, claiming she’s ill.
It’s Eva who suggests the game: all cell phones on the table, and incoming messages must be read aloud, plus calls placed on speaker. No one is thrilled with the idea, but refusing would be tantamount to admitting there’s something to hide, so they agree to play. Cosimo gets the first message, saying “I want your body,” but it’s a joke from Rocco in the kitchen. Little by little though, uncomfortable truths get revealed: Eva is having her breasts done, Carlotta wants to put her mother-in-law in a retirement home.
More tricky is how Lele will explain the photo his mistress sends every evening at 10 p.m. He convinces Peppe, who has the same phone, to switch devices so it looks like attached but unmarried Peppe is a lady’s man. Inevitably the swap creates further problems, and as the pasta course gives way to the meat course, more and more secrets are discovered; the tiramisu never even gets dished up.
The premise cleverly zeroes in on a fear few want to even contemplate: being found out. Once upon a time secrets were shared between friends, but now the cell has become the repository of our illicit behaviors, and the moment that’s exposed, all is laid bare, with no protection. The best scene in “Perfect Strangers” speaks to this idea of the loyalty of friendship versus the neutrality of a device, when Lele covers for Peppe and allows a major (for this movie, and this group of people) revelation to fall on his shoulders. It’s also the only moment when anyone acts in the name of true friendship, and behaves like an adult rather than a high school kid.
It would be nice to suggest that Genovese and the other scripters did this deliberately to show the childish behavior of the average person, but unfortunately there’s no such reflexive depth here, only spoiled middle- to upper-middle-class people with wellsprings of unhappiness and no agency to change their situations. Also, who ever went to an Italian dinner party where no one, but no one, mentions the food?
The talented cast make the most of their roles, each playing to the type assigned. Genovese avoids a sense of claustrophobia by moving about the room and the apartment, though a stagebound element inevitably exists. More inexplicable is the poor special effects whenever the director shifts to a ridiculously large full moon heading towards eclipse. Also problematic is the cheesy music, blatantly used at dramatic moments to steer viewer’s emotions.