By Frank Scheck
Matt Walsh makes an unlikely but effective transition to leading man in Archie Borders' romantic comedy Under the Eiffel Tower. Playing an American liquor salesman having a midlife crisis and finding love in (no points for guessing correctly) France, the veteran comic actor, so priceless in HBO's Veep, gives hope to average-looking guys everywhere with his character winning the heart of a gorgeous French vineyard owner. The film ultimately suffers from its overly contrived plot mechanics, but the expert performances by its ensemble make it go down as easy as a smooth glass of Bordeaux.
Walsh plays Stuart, who has just been let go from his job at a Louisville bourbon manufacturer. He takes up an offer from his friends Frank and Tillie (David Wain, Michaela Watkins) to accompany them on a vacation trip to Paris. When the emotionally wounded Stuart misinterprets the friendliness of their twenty four-year old daughter (Dylan Gelula) and impulsively proposes to her, the bizarre gesture promptly gets him banished from the trip.
Still licking his wounds, Stuart continues on his journey alone, making friends with Scottish ex-soccer player Liam (Reid Scott, affecting a none-too-convincing accent). While traveling by train together, they meet Louise (Judith Godreche), for whose romantic attentions they immediately begin competing. Complications ensue, with both financially strapped men invited by Louise to stay at her vineyard in the countryside where she lives with an older, invalid American, Gerard (Gary Cole).
It's a workable premise for a romantic comedy, with the cocky ladies' man Liam contrasting with the insecure, sensitive Stuart in predictable but often amusing ways. But the screenplay, co-written by the director, David Henry and female lead Godreche, strains too hard to inject antic silliness into the mix. Stuart keeps running into his former traveling companions in ways less suggestive of coincidence than contrivance, and major plot twists result from Judith overhearing Stuart as he's making insensitive remarks. And do we really need another cinematic episode in which adolescent-minded men get into a physical brawl?
On the other hand, the story does have its rewarding elements, most of them revolving around the alluring Louise who displays a mature sophistication when it comes to affairs of the heart. It's not hard to guess that Godreche had a major hand in shaping her character. Nor is it hard to believe that Walsh had some input in creating his, since Stuart, initially presented as a clueless loser, is eventually revealed to be a gourmet cook, an excellent painter and a virile lover.
The film benefits immeasurably from the performances. Walsh and Reid display excellent chemistry, not surprising considering their longtime work together on Veep. Godreche brings complex emotional shadings to what could have been a formulaic role. And comedy veterans Wain (The State, Wet Hot American Summer) and Watkins (Casual, Transparent) effortlessly steal laughs as Stuart's aghast friends.
Taking full advantage of its picturesque French locations, Under the Eiffel Tower works better as comedy than drama, and feels more like fantasy than romance. But it also has a sweetness that's impossible to entirely resist.