It is up to the wiry, pint-size French heartthrob Romain Duris to carry Pascal Chaumeil’s “Heartbreaker,” an overlong mélange of romance and slapstick that looks and sounds more American than French. (That is not a compliment.)
With his crinkly eyes and ratty grin, Alex resembles a younger Mick Jagger with inverted lips. His profession, bankrolled by the worried parents and friends of mismatched couples (and sometimes by a boyfriend looking to shed his fiancée), is to break up relationships by swooping down on the female partner and using his charms to embody something more desirable than what she has chosen. Because he won’t interfere with couples who are truly in love, you might describe Alex as an ethical gigolo (if there is such a thing) who does bad (but not too bad) to do good. He stops short of sleeping with the women he is hired to rescue.
Collaborating with his sister Mélanie (Julie Ferrier) and brother-in-law Marc (François Damiens), Alex goes to extravagant lengths to seduce and destroy. With his assistants, who impersonate an array of multilingual handymen, drivers and hotel employees, he exhaustively researches the lives of the designated women. The research is poured into preposterously elaborate scenarios that involve sophisticated surveillance equipment. The best of these scenes infuse the movie with a chaotic slapstick verve.
In the movie’s witty opening sequence, set in North Africa, Alex poses as a humanitarian doctor to detach a woman from a feckless hunk. One of his signature gestures is to turn his head away and then turn back, his eyes filled with tears at an unhappy childhood memory. Another surefire technique involves convincing the woman that they are mystically like-minded in their pop culture and culinary tastes.
“Heartbreaker” is weirdly in love with the ’80s. Its Hollywood connection is “Dirty Dancing,” which Alex’s research has revealed to be Juliette’s all-time favorite movie. (No. 2 on her list of adored pop culture artifacts is the yelping Wham! hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”) Alex teaches himself the choreography from “Dirty Dancing,” and in a nearly deserted saloon outside Monte Carlo he eventually leads Juliette through a reasonable approximation of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s climactic dance sequence.
For reasons that are left vague, Juliette’s father has hired Alex for 50,000 euros to break up his daughter’s blissful relationship with Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln), a rich, handsome, kindhearted, impossibly perfect Englishman, whom she is to marry in 10 days. But in Juliette’s case, because Alex is desperate for money — he owes a small fortune and is being menaced by a goon — he is forced to break his rule of nonintervention in happy couplings.
Alex, who insinuates himself into Juliette’s life by becoming her bodyguard, has his work cut out for him. The only reason a woman would choose a penniless hustler like Alex over Jonathan would be her perverse preference for daredevil bad boys over Prince Charming. And Juliette takes an instant loathing to Alex.
If the movie’s French Riviera setting recalls “To Catch a Thief,” Ms. Paradis is no Grace Kelly, and the disconnect between Juliette’s aristocratic airs and her prosaic tastes taints your fantasy that she is something special. The appearance of her best friend, Sophie (Helena Noguerra), a coarse, loud-mouthed sex fiend who attacks Alex in a fit of lust, further diminishes Juliette’s appeal as a classy romantic heroine.
Yes, “Heartbreaker” is diverting, intermittently charming and occasionally funny, but it is also a jumble of jammed-together notions. Unevenly paced, it goes on too many tangents to cohere as a persuasive comic fable about love and money.
Directed by Pascal Chaumeil; written by Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner and Yoann Gromb; director of photography, Thierry Arbogast; edited by Dorian Rigal-Ansous; music by Klaus Badelt; produced by Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Yann Zenou and Mr. Zeitoun; released by IFC Films. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. WITH: Romain Duris (Alex), Vanessa Paradis (Juliette), Julie Ferrier (Mélanie), François Damiens (Marc), Helena Noguerra (Sophie) and Andrew Lincoln (Jonathan).