To say that ‘Nous finirons ensemble’ suffers from many of the same problems as its predecessor should come as no surprise. “Les petits mouchoirs” (released as “Little White Lies” in English-speaking territories) was the second most popular film in France in 2010, behind “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” so one cannot fault writer-director Guillaume Canet for wanting to give Gallic audiences more of what they loved the first time around. However, we can fault Canet for the result, a jabbering and ingratiating followup filled with narrative dead ends, unexplored themes and late-inning plot contrivances.
None of these issues seem to bother local audiences, who have made “Nous finirons ensemble” (which translates to “We will end up together”) a hit, albeit a smaller one than its predecessor. Fortunately, considering the first film’s mediocre performance in North America — where it earned just $206,088 of its more than $48 million haul — foreknowledge of “Les petits mouchoirs” is not mandatory, and a sequel focused on the travails of middle age could resonate with specialty audiences, should a brave distributor give it a shot.
Veering slightly from the original, which spread the wealth among eight or so primary characters, the new film is weighted toward one main narrative concern: Max (François Cluzet), the control-freak restaurateur is turning 60, and he prefers to mark the occasion in isolation at his beloved Cap Ferret beach house. He’s become estranged from the gang of friends who cavorted there every summer, so he’s shocked to see them descend on the house for a surprise celebration. Clearly not in the mood, Max turns them away, not because he’s got the birthday blues, but because he’s hiding a secret: dire financial troubles have forced him to sell the beach house. When actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche) discovers the truth, he offers to rent another villa so the reunited group can indulge its penchant for bickering, boozing and bed hopping.
From here, Canet updates us on all the characters, none of whom have changed to any noteworthy degree except Marie (Marion Cotillard), although what happened to her between films is probably more interesting than what’s happening presently. Still heartbroken over the death of Ludo (Jean Dujardin) in the first movie, Marie has since become unmoored. She flies into rages, tells dirty jokes and declares that her child “personifies everything I hate in the world.” Getting her back on track involves not so much an exploration of character, but a tacked-on boat rescue, part of an incident-heavy final stretch that also includes a far-fetched suicide attempt by another housemate.
Canet’s comedy drama is a leisurely 135 minutes yet it still manages to hastily close the book on some story threads and forget others altogether. Max’s soon-to-be ex-wife Véro (Valérie Bonneton) is livid that he’s selling the beach house. Her revenge is hooking up with Alain (José Garcia), a potential buyer and Max’s business rival, a minor subplot that’s never satisfactorily resolved. Same goes for Vincent (a lovely Benoît Magimel), the gay chiropractor who ditches his older boyfriend for a night with ex-wife Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot), a vaguely-motivated development that belittles his role as the only gay man in the series’ principle cast.
When he’s not directing someone into onscreen hysterics, Canet coaxes solid work from his cast. The always terrific Cluzet (who won a best actor César for Canet’s 2006 thriller “Tell No One”) quietly conveys Max’s internal struggle, giving the film some much-needed grounding, while Cotillard never soft-pedals Marie’s emotional descent. And as Eric’s assistant slash friend, Antoine, Laurent Lafitte gamely serves as Canet’s comedy punching bag, humiliated by man, woman and insect.
The intervening years have dulled the edges off the self-absorption and self-pity of this all-white ensemble, making our time with them a bit less of a chore. Canet even shaved a reel off the original’s interminable running time. But “Nous finirons ensemble” is still padded with moments meant to suggest real life that instead serve as evidence Canet is being too indulgent as a director and too unfocused as a writer (the latter credit he shares with Rodolphe Lauga). And as with the original, he repeatedly reminds us how much fun we’re having by setting scenes over tasty if incongruous English-language pop and rock tunes. At one point, a musical interlude featuring characters skydiving over the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” comes mere seconds after the fade out of the previous musical interlude.
Although the airing of grievances might lead to healthier relationships in real life and good drama in film, Canet makes us travel too far and suffer too much to teach us two “no duh” lessons: real friends stick by you during bad times, and a successful serio-comic examination of changing values, like Canet’s admitted inspiration, “The Big Chill,” remains beyond his reach.