Of the two French films opening in the Boston area today — “Beloved” is the other — “Little White Lies” is the less ambitious, more watchable, and ultimately more annoying. Comparisons have been made to “The Big Chill,” and the new film’s inexplicable soundtrack of American classic-rock chestnuts makes such a comparison unavoidable. But writer-director Guillaume Canet is less interested in nostalgic baby boomer bonding than skewering his Parisian yuppies on a barbecue spit and letting them roast in the sun.
The film opens with this year’s Academy Award-winning actor, Jean Dujardin, staggering out of a nightclub coked to the gills and running his motorcycle into a truck. His friends visit Ludo in the hospital and, after a bit of fretting, decide they’ll carry on with their annual group vacation at a Bordeaux beach house. So much for loyalty.
Everyone’s out for themselves here, despite hearty declarations of eternal friendship. Éric (Gilles Lellouche) is a preening actor and slick ladykiller, his macho exterior hiding a little boy’s insecurity. Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is a needy neurotic who keeps texting his ex-girlfriend (Anne Marivin). Marie (Marion Cotillard) makes like one of the boys, changing lovers whenever one gets too close.
Their host, and the group’s unofficial father figure, is Max (François Cluzet), a wealthy hotel entrepreneur whose control-freak tendencies are coming to a head this year. He’s unnerved by Ludo’s accident and even more so by the weasels chewing their way through his summer home’s insulation. But he’s most freaked out by longtime friend Vincent’s confession of a crush on him. “I’m not queer,” insists Vincent (Benoît Magimel), “but I think I’m in love with you.” Meanwhile, Vincent’s wife, Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot), the one innocent in this crew, gets her lonely jollies with Internet porn.
Maybe you’ve had a beach house vacation like this; I sure hope not. “Little White Lies” lets this group, plus a few assorted children and adults (like Max’s long-suffering wife, played by Valérie Boneton, and Marie’s latest sensitive hunk, played by Maxim Nucci) simmer and bicker, their belle amitie gradually boiling over into rancor. Some of the scenes approach farce, as when Max and Vincent are marooned by the tides in a speedboat, Max keeping as far aft from his friend as possible.
Other moments are gloppily melodramatic, and by the end Canet is nudging all his characters toward tidy resolutions. It’s not clear how we’re supposed to feel about these people, mildly hateful and unconvincingly lovable as they are, but the movie just gets by on the strength and attractiveness of the performers, all familiar faces to followers of French films from the last few years. (Cluzet was the lead in “The Intouchables,” while Lellouche was in “Point Blank.” Dujardin was in “The Artist,” of course, and Cotillard is Cotillard.)
But the overall tone of “Little White Lies” feels off, or maybe it just doesn’t translate to American audiences. The film’s use of American rock oldies like “Hang on Sloopy” and “Fortunate Son” is curious: We know what these songs mean to us, but what do they mean to the characters, most of whom are too young to have heard them on the radio the first time around?
Nor is there any real reason for the two-and-a-half-hour running time. Still, the film’s easy enough on the eyes, especially if you pack a little schadenfreude in your duffel. Canet never makes up his mind whether to judge or embrace his little white liars, though, and maybe only Jean Renoir would be able to manage both. In the final scenes, the movie brings on a working-class fisherman (Joël Dupuch) to lecture the characters on their sins, then wraps it up with a group hug and a freeze frame. In other words, it throws in the beach towel.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.