When it comes to Lifetime movies, most people don’t pay the slightest attention to who the heck made them. In the case of “Paris Can Wait,” a flat, sun-dappled divertissement about a married American woman (Diane Lane, luminous as ever) who must fend off the advances of a flirty French cad (Arnaud Viard) as they make their way by convertible from the Côte d’Azur to Paris, the director’s identity actually matters, since this insufferable road movie is based on an actual trip taken by its creator, Eleanor Coppola — known to many simply as the wife of “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola — making her narrative feature debut at the sprightly age of 80.
As it happens, Eleanor Coppola is quite an accomplished artist and filmmaker in her own right (her exceptional behind-the-scenes documentary, “Hearts of Darkness,” revealed how the production of her husband’s “Apocalypse Now” was as dark and tortured a journey for its creators as the one he hoped to capture on film). But the trouble with “Paris Can Wait” — apart from the sheer agony of being trapped with two insufferable characters as they sample gorgeously photographed food and wine that we can’t taste — is the way the movie seems so willing to let its leading lady be defined by her husband’s job. Lane plays Anne Lockwood, who, apart from being married to Michael (Alec Baldwin), a big-shot Hollywood producer permanently attached to his cell phone, isn’t much of a character at all. In time, we learn a few key background details, but beyond these, she may as well be one more piece of baggage her husband drags along when he travels.
Suffocating in the sort of jazz music people try to talk over in restaurants, the film opens at the Cannes Film Festival (shot on location last year), where Anne appears blasé in the face of all the pesky photographers, producers, and hangers-on vying for her husband’s attention — but also in the face of her incredible surroundings: the sea, the Riviera, the restaurants. For sexy young singles, Cannes serves as an arena to leverage one’s beauty in seducing the rich and powerful, but Anne has already snagged her own provider, albeit one who quibbles over the room-service bill, chiding what he sees as her “wasteful extravagance” (“What are you working for if your wife can’t order a cheeseburger when she wants one?” she retorts).
Maybe it’s a generational thing, but Anne’s predicament takes for granted a level of privilege that’s nothing short of nauseating: Here she is, tagging along on what is clearly a work trip, disgruntled about being bored in one of the most beautiful corners of the world. The couple’s plan had been to fly straight from Cannes to Budapest, where Michael has more business (boo hoo), before they can take a short vacation together in Paris, but Anne uses an earache as an excuse to go straight to Paris. Before she can buy her ticket for the five-hour train, however, her husband’s producing partner, Jacques Clement (Viard), offers to drive her directly to Paris instead — though the only thing “direct” about his approach is how clearly he makes his true intentions known.
Because Coppola has written Jacques with all the nuance of a Pepé le Pew cartoon (which, in all fairness, may be true to her own guide on the 2009 road trip that inspired her script), his every gesture feels like a leaden cliché. Assuring her that other girls are “just Pop Tarts, you’re chocolate crème brûlée,” Jacques drives an old Peugeot convertible, which he steers off the road every hour for a cigarette break. He has a string of “friends” (likely ex-lovers) at nearly every stop along the way, at one point even sending her off on a tour of the Musée Lumière in Lyon (dedicated to the brothers who invented the movies) while he indulges a nostalgic shag. Such rakish behavior may work on some women, but Anne is not so easily won over by Jacques’ mannerisms, although there’s no denying that he possesses a certain “charm” — or personality, at least — which is more than she can claim for herself.
Though nearly all the film’s laughs come at the expense of how Americans think the French behave (they smoke too much! they love cheese! they don’t believe in fidelity!), Anne is no great example herself. Her only “hobby” involves whipping out her digital camera and photographing whatever happens to be on her plate, like a Snapchat-obsessed teenager without the burning need to share the results on social media. And she’s no less a slave to her iPhone than her husband, answering the device without so much as an apology should it happen to ring in the middle of a three-star restaurant meal or relaxing picnic. Coppola allows one criticism: Anne is guilty of never slowing to smell the roses, and Jacques gives her the chance to do just that (at one point filling the backseat with fresh-cut flowers).
More importantly, Jacques may only want to seduce Anne, but he really sees her, managing to make her husband a bit jealous in the process. Regardless of whether she decides to indulge his advances, the 48 or so hours they spend together rekindle in this complacently married woman some idea of what she wants from Michael. Charitably speaking, “Paris Can Wait” feels like one of those late-career Woody Allen travelogues (minus the laughs) — or maybe a toothless “Two for the Road,” if one character were a stultifying bore and the other spoke in an accent so thick he practically requires subtitles (omitted even for the French dialogue). Naturally, we’d expect more from the wife of Francis Ford Coppola. We’d expect more from anyone.