It’s hard to imagine that the ideal audience for the cringe-inducing French romantic comedy “I Love America” will reject its pat life lessons and hacky jokes, partly because Sophie Marceau, playing a single Frenchwoman living and looking for love in Los Angeles, tends to be a more compelling performer than anything that her character does or says on-screen.
“I Love America” also bats at the sort of low-hanging fruit that, given the right mood, could be of interest to anyone who enjoys watching cornball romantic comedies or even the embarrassing but compulsively watchable “And Just Like That…” revival.
Director Lisa Azuelos (the French comedy “LOL”) and her co-writer Gaël Fierro didn’t overexert themselves as far as their tired jokes about underwhelming dating-app encounters and L.A. pretensions. But Marceau and her co-stars are all front-lit to the point where they look immaculately airbrushed, and the formulaic plot and its many tacky platitudes could still be satisfying if you really want to root for good-looking people as they struggle to sell you some truly embarrassing material.
Marceau plays Lisa, a 50 year-old Parisian filmmaker who moves to L.A. “to start a new life,” as she happily declares to an indifferent LAX customs agent. This is right before Lisa’s mother (Sophie Verbeeck) dies, which somehow hastens her pre-existing romantic crisis. (Lisa hasn’t had sex since 2019, though it’s unclear how that’s her mom’s fault.)
Based partly on Azuelos’ experiences with her own dying mother, Lisa’s story alternates between self-affirming bathos — she misses her mom, but also remembers feeling spurned and judged by her, as we see in a series of sketchy flashbacks — and cheap-seats comedy that’s also sometimes painfully retrograde (e.g., when Lisa notes that “Me Too” used to “simply” mean “I’m in”).
Most of “I Love America” follows Lisa’s awkward dating experiences as she tries to regain her lost mojo with the help of her swishy gay best friend Luka (Djanis Bouzyani). Luka talks Lisa up, makes a dating app profile for her, and encourages her to hook up with men instead of anything more romantically complicated. Hilarity ostensibly ensues as Lisa drinks too much, takes too many edibles, and even goes on a nude first date. She also spends most of her time pursuing John (Colin Woodell, “The Flight Attendant”), a 29-year-old ex-lifeguard that she enjoys having sex with.
There’s not much of an emotional clothesline to support dopey gags about cashew allergies and snippy yoga students. Lisa’s mommy issues only pop up whenever her romantic travails remind her of awkward growing pains, like when she flashes back to borrowing her mom’s shoes and lipstick as she, in the present day, sees a drag queen put some lipstick on a friend, also in drag.
Azuelos and Fierro’s observations about L.A. and its dating scene also tend to be more schticky than thoughtful, so it’s not surprising that everybody inevitably talks like they’re secretly workshopping a vanity press self-help book. Lisa thinks that “Life is a dance that makes you forget your fears of the dark…until the lights go out.” John also talks like a Carrie Bradshaw understudy when he asks wonderingly, “If your life was a sailboat, would you never want it to leave port?” An anonymous lover asks Luka a rare meaningful question (“Why are you on the phone [during sex]?”), but that one’s supposed to be funny.
Then again, it’s genuinely hard to know if anybody watching “I Love America” will expect much more than throw-pillow wisdom and sunny exteriors. Marceau gives Lisa just enough depth of character to make you want to root for her, even as she’s stifling yawns during a date with an insensitive creep (David Theune, “Good Girls”) with a bad mustache or struggling to think of a non-alcoholic drink to order when she, having already drank too much, goes on her first date with John.
Would it have been better if the characters’ dialogue and actions weren’t seemingly decided by an artificially intelligent, general-audience-serving rom-com algorithm? Sure. But does that significantly detract from scenes where Marceau covers up her chest during a naked date with the fit Danish nudist Bjørn (David Owe)? Your mileage may vary.
There’s nothing so offensive or degrading in “I Love America” that will significantly offput anybody who likes the idea of seeing an older woman with a European accent pursue a handsome young American on a date that climaxes with In-N-Out burgers at Will Rogers State Beach’s famous “Baywatch” lifeguard tower. There’s also way more half-assed sex jokes and lame-o life wisdom than anybody but the most dedicated rubberneckers or desensitized rom-com fans will want to endure.
The awkward transitions and clichéd merrymaking that define Lisa’s story will likewise be either more feature than bug for genre fans or just one more thing that makes Azuelos and Fierro’s narrative seem lazy and confused. Maybe you just want to watch a sexy Frenchwoman shake it to Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” after her gay bestie encourages her to “be a bad girl.” Or maybe you’d be better off calling your own BFFs for comfort. Either way, “I Love America” works, usually in spite of itself, but sometimes by sheer try-hard pluck.
“I Love America” launches worldwide on Prime Video April 29.