[Screen It]

(2009) (Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend) (R)

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Drama: On the eve of retiring from her profession that's left her a rich, but unloved woman in pre WWI Paris, a middle-aged courtesan ends up falling for the young but spoiled son of her friend and fellow former colleague.
In her prime, Lea de Lonval (MICHELLE PFEIFFER) was unmatched as the courtesan of choice in pre WWI Paris, a vocation that's left her rich, but without true love. Living in a mansion with a large staff including her personal aide, Rose (FRANCES TOMELTY), Lea is contemplating retiring from her line of work, what with now being middle-aged.

In doing so, she'd be joining the ranks of her fellow and now well-to-do colleagues, Marie Laure (IBEN HJEJLE), whom she can't stand, and Madame Peloux (KATHY BATES), with whom she's now friendly. The latter is worried about her spoiled and lazy 19-year-old son, Cheri (RUPERT FRIEND), and asks Lea for her help.

Yet, what begins as a temporary bit of educating him about life and love turns into a six-year relationship. Lea is generally pleased in her mother-lover role with Cheri, but is thrown for a loop when Madame Peloux announces she's arranged for her son to marry Marie Laure's 18-year-old daughter, Edmee (FELICITY JONES).

She knows it's the right thing for him to do, but finds this development and the subsequent marriage a shock to her self-esteem. From that point on, the former long-time lovers find themselves longing for each other, despite the obstacles in their way, including his marriage as well as the vast difference in their ages.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Aside from physically-based vocations that require certain amounts of stamina and strength and those that require significant years of experience, pretty much anyone can do any job at any age, as long as they're not kids (darn those pesky child labor laws) or have old age induced limitations of mind and/or body.

In the usual sexist fashion, however, many women usually get the short shrift in such matters, mainly because society often equates youthfulness and/or beauty rather than experience with perceived ability. That's never truer than in Hollywood where most actresses over the age of 40 have a hard time finding work in anything but mom roles that eventually segue into grandmother and/or crazy old lady ones.

Of course, such ageism meets sexism is probably most prevalent in the oldest profession of them all. After all, if a man's going to pay for a woman's "company," more often than not he's going to choose a younger model rather than one with a higher number of miles and varying amounts of daily wear and tear.

Those two professions and their view of aging women come into play in "Cheri," the adaptation of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette's 1920 novel of the same name. While not in the same line of work as her female protagonist in the book, Colette did the life imitating art thing by having a fling with a much younger man (who just so happened to be her stepson) while in her 50s.

Her apparently inspirational (to her) story from a few years earlier involved an aging courtesan who has a fling with a pampered young man that turns into a six-year affair, only to end when he marries someone else. The two then end up miserable as they realize the old adage about absence making the heart grow fonder, and they eventually must choose what's right for them as both a couple and individuals.

Adapted three times before (once on film, twice on TV), the story now returns to the big screen in full visual grandeur. Yet, it ultimately ends up far more interesting for trivia purposes and thematic subtext than as an entertaining or engaging flick.

The first element stems from the fact that it reunites for the first time the director (Stephen Frears), screenwriter (Christopher Hampton) and one of the stars (Michelle Pfeiffer) of the acclaimed 1988 costume drama, "Dangerous Liaisons." Alas, lightning doesn't strike twice, for while the picture might be visually attractive (due to the collaborative work of cinematographer Darius Khondji, production designer Alan MacDonald, art director Denis Schnegg, set decorators Judy Farr and Veronique Melery, and costume designer Consolata Boyle, among others), it's about as boring as they come.

And that's due to a number of reasons, but most notably it's believability (or lack thereof) and viewer empathy (ditto) toward the characters and their plight. Simply put, Frears and his leads (Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend) don't get us to buy into the main characters' unlikely love. A one-night stand where the seasoned courtesan shows the pampered young man a thing about sowing wild oats? Sure, I can accept that. But there's no reason to go along with that turning into the multi-year affair, or their individual torment once they break up.

Thematically, it makes some sense for her as a woman no longer seen as desirable as she once was, thus latching onto youthful attraction as long as it's around. And having Pfeiffer (who still looks stunning at 51) play the part has some irony as Hollywood probably hasn't exactly been knocking down her door begging her to play the sort of comely characters she once did.

Yet, what might have looked good in concept and/or on the page simply doesn't segue into engaging execution. While the film is pretty to watch, I never bought into the pairing and subsequent separation-induced longing. As a result of that, some occasionally mediocre acting (especially from Friend), and a script that aspires for wickedness in its dialogue and character-based treachery (mostly revolving around Kathy Bates' character) as well as wrenching romance, but falls short far more often than it succeeds, the whole thing eventually becomes a fairly tiresome cinematic affair.

While it might rack up some award nominations for its sets, costumes and such, it's too bad the writing, directing and acting don't match all of the hours and hard work that obviously went into making this pretty, but pretty boring offering. Those expecting something along the lines of the second coming of "Dangerous Liaisons" are apt to be disappointed, as was yours truly. "Cheri" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 12, 2009 / Posted June 26, 2009

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