We hear Nick (Broadbent) before we see him as he makes the sound of something between a grunt and a sigh. It’s a meaningful introduction to the character. After all, Meg (Duncan), his fed-up wife of 30 years, has stopped seeing Nick, seeing him truly. You get the sense that, for her, he’s no longer a man but a tally of overfamiliar tics, aches, nervous complaints, and smells. Meg and Nick are on an anniversary trip to Paris, that storied city of love, but by the nth time she recoils from her husband’s touch you can’t help but think the price of the trip would have been better spent hiring a divorce lawyer.
She’s withholding, and he’s hungry. She’s cruel, and he’s kicked-dog pathetic. She wants him to act more like a man, and he sulks back that she’s the one who turned him into a feminist. They fight about money, retirement, Nick’s polite overtures toward sex, a disappointing son, and their endlessly compromised hopes and dreams. Then the two share a laugh, a meal, a soft word or look – some tiny respite from long-nursed resentments – and the sinking ship rights itself. Still, brace for impact. Another wave is always coming.
Director Roger Michell and his frequent writer Hanif Kureishi (their last film together was Venus) regularly dance to the very cliff’s edge of despair, and only for the grace of good casting do you not wish they’d just jump and get it over with. The material – its series of squabbles put down for posterity, constructed like a ricocheting bullet that always hits the same target – feels insubstantial when compared with Richard Linklater’s thematically similar Before Midnight. But Duncan and Broadbent are marvelous, fleet-footed players, and they make it all much funnier than it should be. The film may circle its own tail, but the actors find new ways to animate her fury and his sadness, their intense isolation and then a closed-ranks togetherness when outsiders encroach.
Jeff Goldblum plays one such outsider, a former Cambridge crony who has far outpaced Nick’s middling career. Goldblum tears into the small part with lip-licking and brio, but it really exists only to nudge Nick into a scorched-earth monologue cataloging all the ways he has failed in life. It’s fine – the kind of grandstanding that writers get giddy over, and actors, too – but an earlier scene achieves the same effect more economically and viscerally, when Nick raids the hotel-room minibar and lip-syncs to “Like a Rolling Stone,” earbuds in so as not to disturb his sleeping wife. A lifetime of frustrated yearning is laid bare in a few moments of drunken weaving.
I won’t spoil the ending, nor will I deny its playful charms. (The title doesn’t recall Godard by accident.) But, to crib from Dylan, how does it feel? Like borrowed goodwill – and maybe crying uncle, tired after so much tail-chasing.