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“Welcome to Hollywood, land of dreams. What’s your dream?,” the famous quote goes in “Pretty Woman.” It’s hard not to think of this hopeful moment during Lisa Azuelos’ amiable yet unambitious and tonally shaky Tinseltown-set romantic comedy “I Love America.” Played by the alluring Sophie Marceau, a stand-in muse for Azuelos, Parisian film director Lisa comes to town with one, seeking midlife transformation in search of a fresh start. She feels a little stuck when we first meet her, and a little torn apart about her complicated mom’s ailing health and numbered days. So what can be better than relocating to La La Land temporarily for some sunshine, a jolt of energy and no-strings-attached sex after her long period of draught under the bedsheets?
Loosely inspired by her own experiences, what Azuelos has in store for Lisa couldn’t be a breezier experience, at least after her famous mother passes away in peace, on her own terms. (Thankfully, the old woman holds out until Lisa could make a brief return to France to say her final goodbyes.) Back in Los Angeles, Lisa settles in with one of her best friends, a fellow French expat named Luka (Djanis Bouzyani) who apparently scored big in LA with his famous drag bar, if his lovely house with a pool and vintage-style car are any indication. It’s amid this pretty world of subtle opulence that Lisa starts considering her LA prospects. Sure, it’s all a bit unattainably privileged, but what harm is there in admiring her good fortune, and treating the whole thing like an episode of “And Just Like That...,” only on the opposite coast?
Because honestly, there is very little else to this meek and cordial rom-com than lovely real estates, sunny beaches, restorative hikes and fancy yoga classes. And it is somewhat fun to be at their presence, especially for this critic currently on her own brief Los Angeles tryout. The other modest treat here is Azuelos’ casual yet arresting approach to Lisa. At no point does the filmmaker try to seem preachy or radical in her quest to make a romantic film about a 50-year-old when the genre (or whatever’s left of it amid a landscape saturated by superheroes) still skews young. She just allows her character to be who she is and follows her LA escapades both matter-of-factly and with a small dose of inoffensive mischief. Among those adventures is obviously dating. Even though Lisa insists, “We don’t have the word ‘dating’ in French. We either f**k or we don’t,” she still allows Luka to create a dating app profile for her. After an especially disastrous match-up summed up in one mildly funny scene and several left swipes, Lisa finally meets the much younger John (Colin Woodell), a textbook good guy instantly smitten with Lisa.
While their dates, during which the likes of “The Big Lebowski” and “The Way We Were” get name checked and cocktails flow on the dance floor, couldn’t be any dreamer, the duo eventually have a temporary fallout due to Lisa’s insistence on keeping it casual. But neither their brief separation nor their reunion generates a lasting emotional impact. One reason is the fact that we never really get to learn anything substantial about John, so much that it takes us until the last moments of the film to finally believe that he is one of the good ones. Until then, he seems as generic as his name. The other reason is the relative clumsiness of their dialogue exchanges which drags down the rhythm of their sexual chemistry. Equally clunky are Azuelos’ flashbacks to Lisa’s childhood, once again, drawn from her own memories. When we just want to be back in LA with Lisa and Luka—he gets his own storyline too—and groove with the film’s disco-heavy soundtrack that includes bangers from Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer, the filmmaker insists to slow things down with mommy issues. It would have been one thing if learning about Lisa’s childhood troubles with a mostly absent mom somehow enhanced our window into her LA days. But in the way they are assembled here, they seem like distractions.
Still, there are worse fates than spending a couple of hours with Sophie Marceau embodying Azuelos’ apparent love for LA and a commonly dismissed genre. You might wish otherwise at times, but you will be surprised to find there isn’t even an ounce of sarcasm embedded in the film’s title. If anything, Azuelos is overly positive about the anonymity a certain type of American lifestyle enables. Because of that naiveté, “I Love America” is hardly a life-changing rom-com. But it’s a good candidate for your next airplane watch.
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