May 05, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

The key to understanding why French Kiss, seems to be two movies at once — Meg Ryan’s, and everybody else’s — is buried in a press release promoting the film. ”One of the most skilled and beloved practitioners of the fine art of romantic comedy” is how the star is described, and that is indeed how Ryan presents herself these days: Her every gesture is calculated for cuteness. Her beloved eyes sparkle when she opens them wide in delightful Sleepless in Seattle bafflement. Her beloved lips shine when she curls her adorable When Harry Met Sally grin. Her kicky blond hair glints in the sun as she bops through the streets of Paris in Lawrence Kasdan’s meandering, unfocused comedy — a cautious first stab at the form by a strong director who has moved ensembles to greatness in such films as The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, but cannot move Ryan to work in synch with Kevin Kline.

Kline plays Luc, an attractive, unshaven, somewhat shady Frenchman who meets Ryan’s Kate when, tossing her flying phobia to the wind, she hops a plane to Paris to win back her fiancé, Charlie (a Jell-O-ish Timothy Hutton, inheriting the kind of role Bill Pullman used to play before he got lucky in While You Were Sleeping), after Charlie, away on business in France, announces that he has fallen suddenly, deliriously in love with a Parisian beauty. How could Charlie be such a dolt? Kate can be teeth-grindingly neurotic, true, but delightfully so: With her fizzy all-American enthusiasms — for the pretty countryside, for the wonders of cheese — any man who misses the seductiveness of her fresh-faced fizz just isn’t looking hard enough. Kate’s breezy spunk even works on Luc, who begins his liaison with her as a necessity (she’s unknowingly wrapped up in a smuggling gig he’s got going) and winds up, as classic romantic comedy convention requires, captivated by her Ryanized tics. (Reminding us of a former good thing, she does an homage to her famous When Harry Met Sally orgasm-in-a-deli scene, only this time it’s not ecstasy she’s enacting — it’s lactose intolerance.)

I’m not sure what Kline is doing playing a Frenchman. At first you might think he’s doing parody more suited to A Fish Called Wanda, or maybe an update of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. There’s also an extended anti-French riff concerning a supercilious Parisian hotel concierge; the poor French, it seems, are the last U.N. members yet to receive protection in American entertainment under the Exquisite Sensitivity to Other Nationalities Act. But once Kline settles in — and realizes that nothing he does is allowed to outshine his costar — he’s got a game, gentle appeal not apparent on first sight. (You know who could have scared her straight and slapped her into place through a combo of sheer bulk and Gallic intimidation? Gérard Depardieu! Voilà.)

Kline is, of course, an old Kasdan rep player (the two have made five movies together) and it shows: He’s lithe and adaptable and the best thing the director’s got going. When he brings out Luc’s softer, more vulnerable side, you can begin to actually root for the guy and hope he gets the girl he wants. Ryan’s Kate, though — well, she’s so self-involved that it hardly matters to us which boy she ends up with. She’ll always have Herself in Paris. C

Jean Reno
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