Sequels to blockbusters are crushingly commonplace, yet sequels to indie films are rare. When they come along, they usually exist for the right reason—not because the studio wants another gigantic payday but because the writer and/or director has more to say about the characters. Before Sunrise (1995) introduced Ethan Hawke as an American tourist in Vienna and Julie Delpy as the Frenchwoman he meets, falls for, and reluctantly leaves; when that movie's writer-director, Richard Linklater, revived the characters in Before Sunset (2004), he wanted to explore how the would-be lovers had reckoned with their fateful separation. Now Delpy has created a similar set of bookends with her screwball comedies 2 Days in Paris (2007) and 2 Days in New York (which opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre). Both movies generate laughs from the yawning cultural divide between France and the U.S., but taken as a pair they also show how even the closest of lovers, like people from different lands, never really understand each other.
If you feel culturally inferior to the French, take comfort in the fact that 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York both follow the comic template of the wacky, tacky Meet the Parents franchise. 2 Days in Paris opens with Marion (Delpy) explaining in voice-over narration that she grew up in Paris but moved to New York to pursue a photography career; now she and her neurotic American boyfriend, Jack (Adam Goldberg), have arrived in the City of Light to visit her mother and father (Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy, the director's real-life parents). The only difference is that she's reversed the social polarity—now the intimidating father figure is a radical instead of a puritan. When Jack, who speaks no French, first dines with Jeannot, Marion's father, who speaks no English, the old man cooks rabbit and grosses out Jack by helping himself to the head. Their conversation consists of Jeannot quizzing Jack with the names of writers—Kerouac, Faulkner, Henry Miller, Arthur Rimbaud—and tries to catch him up by including Auguste Renoir.
As you might guess from that encounter, Delpy exploits the language divide for all it's worth. The funniest scenes operate on two different planes, the family mocking Jack in French and Jack mocking them in English; only Marion and, to some extent, her younger sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), understand what both sides are saying. Jack is usually on the outside of the conversation, glaring furiously as he tries to follow. When he and Marion run into her ex-lover Manu (Alexandre Nahon), the other man takes a moment to ascertain that Jack can't understand him and then launches into a frank come-on to Marion. "That guy was looking at you like you were a big leg of lamb," Jack remarks. Later, in a restaurant, she and Jack run into another of her old boyfriends, and she loudly accuses the man of patronizing child prostitutes in Thailand. Her outburst gets her thrown out of the restaurant, but Jack never does figure out what was going on. "Are you Mike Tyson?" he asks her. "I'm dating Mike Tyson!"
Many of the other gags revolve around sex, with Jack as the butt of the French characters' more open attitudes. At dinner Marion embarrasses him by showing everyone a photo she took of him nude, with party balloons tied to his penis. After they run into Manu, Marion admits that she once gave him a blow job and asks if they can meet up with him at a party that evening. "That's the way we do it in France," Marion explains. "We stay really close to our exes." Jack isn't sure whether or not to buy this, and he's dismayed by how her "little thing" with Manu keeps accumulating detail; eventually he learns that Manu was the man who took Marion's virginity. Even more distressing is Jack's discovery of an old photo showing another nude man with party balloons affixed to his member. "Is this like the equivalent of mounting different boyfriends' heads on the wall," he asks, "but instead you take pictures of helium balloons tied around cocks?" Later Jack catches a look at Marion's cell phone and spies a text message from someone named Mathieu telling her, "I'm your salami for life."
Goldberg's neurotic shtick was good for one movie, but for 2 Days in New York, Delpy has wisely replaced him with Chris Rock as Marion's new man, Mingus. Swallowed up by the family's world, the boyfriend gets all the best lines and reaction shots; he's the comic engine of the movie, and the second one benefits from the oil change. Delpy opens with a puppet show dramatizing her breakup with Jack, their shared custody of their little boy, Lulu, and her happy new relationship with Mingus, a Village Voice writer and a radio broadcaster, and Willow, his little daughter from a previous marriage. This time Marion's father, bereaved by the death of his wife (Marie Pillet passed away in 2009), arrives for a visit to New York City, accompanied by Rose and her latest boyfriend—the unctuous Manu. Mingus suddenly finds himself with an apartment full of bickering, libidinous, and strong-smelling Parisians (in fact Jeannot and Manu have been detained at the airport and divested of 18 smuggled cheeses and sausages).
Again the gags stress sexual attitudes, but they're funnier and more pointed, thanks largely to Rock. (He's on rather familiar territory here, having taken his own shot at a Franco-American hybrid by remaking Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon as I Think I Love My Wife.) Mingus and Marion's perpetually interrupted love life sets us up for a laugh when Mingus has to cohabit with Rose, a delicate beauty with no qualms about showing her body. Mingus is alarmed when he first glimpses her nude through a cracked bathroom door, and as he's trying to escape out the door to work, she appears clad in his bathrobe and ventures farther into his space than he'd like. "You are so open-minded, yes?" Rose asks. That night she and Manu come home late, and Marion and Mingus overhear them humping in the bathroom, using Mingus's electric toothbrush as a vibrator. The next morning a neighbor from their building (Dylan Baker in a very funny cameo) comes to their door and is drawn into the apartment by the sight of Rose prancing around in a T-shirt and no panties.
This time around there's more racial humor, with Manu as the ugly Frenchman and Mingus as the slow-burning object of his patronizing remarks. When they first arrive, Manu quizzes Mingus about the 90s hip-hop trio Salt-n-Pepa, drawing a blank from his host. At a dinner party that evening, Manu hits on Mingus's sister, Elizabeth (Malinda Williams), telling her she looks like Beyonce. He presses Mingus to help him find some weed in New York and, getting no help, complains to Rose, "She found the only nonsmoking brother." Mingus reaches his limit when they're all at a restaurant and he runs into an Indian-American friend who now works for the Obama administration. The fellow offers to get Mingus into a presidential press conference, but the deal falls apart after the two sisters argue violently in French and Manu, mistaking Mingus's friend for the actor Kal Penn, keeps asking him about Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.
Trading Jack for Mingus turns out to be a smart move for another reason: by showing Marion in two different relationships, Delpy stresses how transitory her life has been, an appropriate note to strike for movies about travelers in strange lands. Unlike Jack, Mingus doesn't have to put up with a parade of old boyfriends, especially after Manu is caught rolling a joint in front of a police station and deported. But his relationship with Marion seems to be coming unraveled: anxious about her upcoming gallery show and still distraught over her mother's death, she becomes harder to fathom. By the end Marion and Mingus have managed to work things out, but you wonder if Delpy might not be back again with another man, another city, and another comedy of misunderstanding.