Chinese Puzzle is less of a loveletter to New York, more a valentine to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The parallels come fast and in abundance. Both feature New York as both a locale and a character. Both follow the travails of a middling writer in the aftermath of divorce. Both writers find themselves adrift, while the women of their lives (both have surrounded themselves with a lot of women, somehow) propel themselves ever onward. Chinese Puzzle’s Xavier, played by Romain Duris, is particularly rootless after resolving to move to New York to reconnect with his transplanted children.
It’s a setup that could really go either way on the comedy scale, but director/writer Cédric Klapisch manages to pull out a lot of charm. There’s a few culture-shock jokes, which I always find kind of shitty—e.g. Lost in Translation’s scene with the escort, which is yeah pretty funny (mostly because of Bill Murray’s delivery), but man, rude; Chinese Puzzle makes it feel all in good fun, and no one’s being scorned. Xavier’s American divorce lawyer, for example, is pretty much just a schlubby fast-talker working out of a basement office—whatever stereotype you’re imagining is basically the character—but while he’s profoundly unprofessional, he means well, and he’s not actually incompetent. Xavier himself doesn’t spend much (any?) time gawping at skyscrapers and getting hit by angry taxicabs; actually, he looks right at home almost immediately. Melting pot! (If only we were all so lucky.)
Still, life is complicated for Xavier—that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, “complicated”—most of the running time is dedicated to Xavier finding his place in the city in various subplots: searching for a place to live, finding work (since apparently being a middling French novelist doesn’t quite cover the bills), grappling with being a sperm donor to his best friend, getting a green card (by marrying someone, obviously), spending time with his kids, etc. etc. etc.—all subplots colliding, eventually, in a truly awkward (but hilarious!) scene in Xavier’s Chinatown apartment.
Chinese Puzzle is the final film of a trilogy, and apparently most (if not all) of the cast of the previous films appear again in greater or lesser roles. Having not seen the other two films, I can say that Chinese Puzzle stands well on its own. But while the conclusion of the film sees Xavier learning to move forward again (~*~woo~*~), there’s the sense that it’s just as much about reconciliation with the past. Again, having not seen the other two parts, yr. guess is as good as mine about what reconciliation is required, and I can only imagine certain smaller moments would have been more affecting if I’d known the characters. Still, despite its own history, it doesn’t wink at itself often at all, and it feels like more than just a victory lap.
And the movie isn’t precious or sentimental. Which is an easy trap for things like this, I think! It does wrap up rather neatly—one can nearly see a bow descending upon the screen as the credits roll. But while the wisdoms it espouses might be considered “simple” or “obvious,” those are often the easiest to forget. Chinese Puzzle, if nothing else, has the wisdom to know that.
Well, okay, except maybe at the end, with a Great American Running-To-One’s-Destiny scene. Possibly also another Manhattan homage. (The only thing this movie is missing, then, is some Gershwin.)
Chinese Puzzle, it should also be said, actually has two scenes in which Romain Duris runs through the streets of New York. ↩