Parker Posey's return in "Broken English"

Dennis Harvey July 5, 2007

Most people have certain movie stars they tolerate, and others they will go out of their way to see. (Or avoid, for that matter.)

Some personnel who haven’t quite reached “star” status become reasons enough to watch a movie — even if one might wish there was some option where you could watch only their scenes. (Among current American actors I’d love to download thataway: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Steve Zahn, Queen Latifah, James LeGros.)

They are the more-than-worthies in an often less-than-worthy medium. They can make shit shine, so long as they’re onscreen — so it’s particularly exciting when they get a rare expansive part in a good movie.

Popular cinema is a funny thing. Personalities that rule are often those who can only act their way from A to B (i.e. Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts). Their appeal isn’t based on thesping merit, but on semi-accidental embodiment of the era’s cultural, sexual and/or romantic ideals. They are lucky stiffs.

Nothing is stiff about Parker Posey, perhaps the quintessential example of a film actor beloved by a loyal minority for precisely the same reasons she strikes mainstream Hollywood as Too Weird. Or Not Pretty Enough, Not Blonde Enough, Not Jailbait Enough. Not to mention Too Threateningly Smart For Heterosexual Male Allure. (Although I’ve spied Internet postings by randy fans — suggesting she might pose, absurdly, for things like Bust Magazine — that suggest otherwise.)

In ye olden days, players like she were relegated to supporting-wisecracker parts (a la Eve Arden or Patsy Kelly). Now we are more open to “different types”…allegedly. So it’s possible for her to star in a movie like “Broken English,” which opens this Friday.

As Parker Posey employment opportunities go, this is a pretty major occasion: She carries the whole film, and while it’s got plenty of amusing aspects, the role gives her more dramatic material to work with than usual. That said, “Broken English” probably isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire. It’s a modest, low-key, well-crafted debut feature for Zoe Cassavetes (yes, daughter of John) that doesn’t stray awfully far from single-girl-in-the-city-looking-for-love conventions.

Posey plays Nora Wilder, director of guest services at a Manhattan boutique hotel. She loves her job — but, y’know, work isn’t everything. Despite the well-intentioned but tactless warnings from her mother (Cassavetes’ mom Gena Rowlands) to find a man quick cuz all “at your age…the good ones get snapped up,” she’s long grown disenchanted with the dating scene. Humiliating conclusions to a one-night-stand with a well-known actor (Justin Theroux) and blind date with a seemingly nice, normal guy (Josh Hamilton) only confirm that opinion.

Thus she is unprepared for the ardor of handsome younger Frenchman Julien (Melvil Poupaud), met at a nerdy coworker’s 4th of July party. He seems too good to be true, and indeed there’s a catch: He must return to Paris within days.

This is the point at which hitherto funny, charming “Broken English” makes detours from rom-com norm, allowing its heroine to experience disabling depression that’s vividly but not melodramatically etched.

Fear not: The movie doesn’t become a straight-up downer. But its thoughtful treatment of darker emotions makes the later, admittedly contrived upbeat events feel well-earned.

Stylistically, “Broken English” is just competent. But its deft character writing, wry plot turns and attentiveness toward very good actors (also including Drea de Matteo as Nora’s not-wholly-happily married best friend) are winning. Best of all, it gives Parker Posey a sympathetic, fully dimensionalized role in which she can flex some serious acting muscles beyond her usual displays of comic flair and intelligence.

Dubbed “Queen of the Indies” (though she’s admitted losing plenty of indie film roles), Posey got her professional start playing a conniving youth on TV soap “As the World Turns.” But she fast moved on to better, quirkier things — like the “Tales of the City” miniseries’, and several movies each for Hal Hartley, Richard Linklater and Christopher Guest. More interested in stretching out and working regularly than reaching for stardom — it hasn’t exactly reached back, anyway-she irked agents by accepting some supporting roles after making a moderate splash in 1995 indie sleeper “Party Girl.”

She did get some eventual attention from Hollywood. Yet Posey’s attractive but non-bimbo looks and crackerjack way with a cynical line too often stuck her cast as hoity scheming bitch, or pure ditz. (She’s said “I don’t think Hollywood knows what to do with me” and “In Hollywood movies…[I’m] the girl who has to be annoying so the guy can go to the other girl.”) Certainly you wouldn’t get a significant grasp on her ability from supporting parts in “Superman Returns,” “Laws of Attraction,” “Blade: Trinity,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “Scream 3,” or multiple episodes of “Boston Legal” and “Will & Grace.”

Instead, her best work — which by now constitutes a fine clutch of performances that steal or dominate their movies — has tended to be in films that make news at Sundance, then win some fans in arthouses before becoming repeat-home-viewing favorites.

For those who wonder what the fuss is about, or want more Parker without having to suffer through films where she’s underutilized, there are recommendations to be made.

Ensemble comedies in which she’s been terrific include “The Daytrippers,” “SubUrbia” (both 1996), “Clockwatchers” (1997), “Best in Show” (2000), and more recently the very funny “Adam & Steve” (2005).

For films in which she gets to demonstrate a wider range in sizable seriocomic roles, you can’t do better than two from 1997. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect match of character and actress than hers in “House of Yes” — an effective translation of Wendy MacLeod’s stage black comedy in which she plays “Jackie-O,” the most elegant, witty and lethally crazy member of a wealthy New England family. When the brother (Hamilton again from “Broken English”) with whom she used to play one very perverse dress-up game shows up, Jackie-O implodes.

There’s high contrast between that performance and her equally sharp one as blowsy working-class Fay in Hartley’s great “Henry Fool.” (You might recall his ten-years-later sequel “Fay Grim” dashing through theatres a couple months ago — but despite Posey’s capable star turn, it’s a disappointment.)

A quieter but equally nuanced showcase is writer-director Rebecca Miller’s 2002 “Personal Velocity.” This triptych of tales about women at crossroads peaks with its middle segment, which stars Posey as the heavily overshadowed daughter of a crusading attorney (Ron Liebman). When her own talents are recognized at last, hitherto complacent, even cowed Greta finds her personality undergoing a radical shift. It’s a perfect character portrait, both sweeping and intimate.

Perhaps the momentum of two 2007 indie-feature leads (“Broken English” and “Fay Grim”) will keep PP gainfully employed for some time. One hopes so, since she’s now at that “difficult” juncture where most women pushing 40 get devalued (and decreasingly cast) by an industry that applies very dissimilar standards to aging male actors.

Later this year she’ll support (but probably not out-live) heroine Jessica Alba in “The Eye,” a Japanese-horror remake. Who knows … could be a masterpiece, right? But even if it turns out formulaic dross, there’s not much doubt Parker Posey will make it that much more watchable.