This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
Hollywood has always had the tendency to rehash recipes that are proven to taste like magic to the audience. One can argue that such filmmaking is understandable when the financial stakes are high with big budget studio blockbusters, but it’s disheartening when this lack of originality plunges an entire genre into the farthest depths of mediocrity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the modern rom-com, a genre that ranks only above the found footage subgenre of horror in terms of success-to-dud ratio. So entrenched are rom-com’s hackneyed tropes that some filmmakers don’t bother to tinker with them altogether, regularly assuming that their audience will derive pleasure from seeing what they’ve responded to for decades. The result is often films that scream their entire plotline in the first few minutes and are devoid of any romance or comedy. Such is the case with Jeremy Leven’s Girl on a Bicycle, an ill-conceived story of love in the face of language barriers across the EU.
Paolo (Vincenzo Amato) is an Italian tour bus driver in Paris, hell bent on exposing the Italian influence on every single Parisian landmark he introduces to the poor souls that step in his bus. His fiancée, a German stewardess named Greta (Nora Tschirner), travels frequently due to the nature of her job and has formed a passive-aggressively close friendship with a French captain called Francois (Stéphane Debac), though one senses the writers missed a real opportunity by not casting the Spanish Javier Bardem and calling him Don Juan. Paolo’s best friend is Derek (Paddy Considine), an Englishman who spends his days playing the guitar and practicing French. If you’re keeping track, that’s four nationalities so far, bringing together an eclectic cast of accented English speakers. The fifth piece of the puzzle is Cécile (Louise Monot), the French girl to whom the title refers.
When we first meet Paolo, he proposes to Greta in an intimate restaurant but in a matter of days, he’s fallen hard in love upon first glance with Cécile, who just happens to bike around the same route, at the same time, every single day, as Paolo’s bus. Paolo’s love for Greta never falters but he begins to second-guess his decision to settle down. Derek advises that “there will always be some girl on a bicycle while there is only one Greta” but Paolo’s doubts remain. At the same time, Francois is trying his hardest, while pretending to be nonchalant, to seduce Greta into a one night stand. Meanwhile, we learn that Cécile is an up and coming actress performing in commercials. This is communicated through a scene wherein she continuously struggles to hold a slippery soap in her hands and lets it slide, fly through the room and hit the director in the face, not once or twice, but until his face is bruised and bloodied. Such is the extent to which the film’s humor aspires to entertain. Scenes that couldn’t have possibly seemed funny even in the screenwriter’s head materialize on the screen and overstay their welcome. The comedy is neither funny, nor provocative. It’s entirely harmless, but also inexcusably dull.
The turning point in the narrative finally arrives when Paolo, in his search for Cécile around the streets, fails to notice her taking a turn in front of him and hits her with the bus. She loses her job with a broken arm and a leg; he loses his because of incompetence and in the process, finds that Cécile is actually a single mother of two. Doing what any reasonable man in his position would, Paolo decides to hide the incident from Greta and instead take care of Cécile and her children on his own secretly. The children who have never seen their father and have been told he is in a far away land slaying dragons believe that Paolo is their father who has finally returned.
With all these ingredients in place, Girl on a Bicycle sets off on a path to check every single cliché box that one can think of in the run of the mill, modern rom-com. Wisecracking children who teach adults what they never realized was right in front of them? Check. The lothario that learns the key to happiness is in abiding by society’s monogamous norms? Check. The incredibly attractive woman whose inexplicable, borderline offensive ineptitude at every aspect of life keeps her single until the final scene? Check. The best friend who drops the occasional cheap wisdom? Check. Poorly written, one dimensional female characters? Check. Yet, none of these are the film’s gravest sin, for as unacceptable as they truly are, we have become so accustomed to them as to be desensitized. The real travesty is elsewhere.
From the opening scene, Girl on a Bicycle falls into an unfortunate trap it can never quite escape from: its humor feels entirely forced and predominantly based on national stereotypes. If formulaic jokes about European clichés – Germans are efficient and organized, the French are romantic and consider themselves better at “love” than everyone else, Italians are proud of their architecture and speak in animated gestures, the British love their beer – feel fresh and even slightly comical, then Girl is an amusing enough Valentine’s treat. If you’ve heard these jokes before and didn’t even find them funny the first time around, Lord have mercy on your soul. They are repeated over and over again throughout this film. They are brought up as characters joke with one another or fight, whether they have sex with each other or just a drink. At every occasion, in line at a hotel, on the speaker in an airplane, in the film’s most dramatic or light-hearted moments, it is these immediately irritating quips that are meant to drive the comedy.
Worse yet, all of this is at the service of a screenplay that is otherwise entirely predictable and founded on unlikely accidents. If the relationships seems impossible and the emotions and laughs unearned, it is because the filmmakers have done little to contextualize any event in their plot. Midway through the film, Paolo says to Cécile that life is just a series of unpredictable accidents. Girl on a Bicycle’s script takes that drop of wisdom as its guiding principle. If you know better and you want your hard earned relationship with your significant other to remain unharmed, this film is not a Valentine’s Day memory you would want to keep.