Yeah, I’m a freak.
— Nora (Parker Posey)
When he thanks friends and family for attending his fifth anniversary celebration, square-jawed Mark (Tim Guinee) is entirely polite. He especially toasts Nora (Parker Posey), because, he says, she “introduced us. Without her, there wouldn’t be an us.” Aw. The camera cuts to Nora, who smiles sweetly. She’s used to managing other people’s details: as special services director for a boutique hotel, she’s always looking after someone else’s urgent or trivial need. In this instance, she just looks a little weary as she raises her glass.
It’s early in Broken English, but already you can see that Nora’s looking for something else. Before the party, she spends vague minutes preparing — smoking a cigarette, sipping wine, pondering her prescription pills. At last she decides on a dress, both elegant and casual, and enters into the fray; following Mark’s declaration of gratitude, she faces her mother Vivian (Gena Rowlands), who observes she never should have introduced him to Audrey (Drea de Matteo), but instead, should have married him herself. This time, Nora barely hides her exasperation, as this appears the usual concern for her mother: Nora’s not getting any younger and besides, Mark has “a terrific trust fund.”
This is how the game is played, Nora gets that. But she’s tired of it, particularly of the idea that she’s a failure if she’s single. And so she does her best, trolling dating sites on the net, scoping men she sees at work, humoring her mother (now on her own second husband, Irving [Peter Bogdanovich]). It’s not so much that she needs a man to feel fulfilled. It’s more like she’s been looking so long she’s not sure what else to do.
The film, alternately delicate and abstract, follows Nora’s efforts from a slight distance. When Vivian (“The good ones get snapped up so quickly at your age”) sets her up with a friend’s son, Charlie (Josh Hamilton), Nora goes along, only to find he’s got his own dread of dating (primarily because he’s still pining for a recent ex). And when she’s pursued by a “VIP” actor staying at the hotel, Nick Gable (Justin Theroux in a Mohawk and look-out-for-this-guy tats), she gives that a try too. Their dinner reveals enough that you know she shouldn’t be sleeping with him (“You gotta study” acting, he says, earnestly, “I studied for like six months, this intensive thing on Melrose Place”), but she does anyway. “I want you to know,” she jokes as they both know they’re headed to his bed in her hotel, “that I don’t just go around kissing guests. But you are a VIP.”
Their evening is premised on drinking. His conversation is vapid (“I think you’re totally refreshing,” he says, gazing into her blurry eyes) and she’s bothered by her own longing, but convinces herself that her instinct is wrong. Besides, she then has a chance to tell her mother and Audrey that she has a boyfriend, and that he’s important, someone they’ve seen on TV. When, a day or two later, he appears on TV promoting his new movie and his Hollywood girlfriend (“Serena’s a great girl! She’s totally refreshing!”), Nora’s worst fears are confirmed. “What is wrong with me?” she asks Audrey, “Why can’t I meet someone nice?”
Audrey says the right thing (“The guy’s a jerk”), but this specter of the “nice” guy haunts Nora, who’s looking an awful lot like a romantic comedic heroine stuck in the first act. “I feel so closed off,” she tells her mother, “I sound so desperate. Even I can’t stand the sight of my own desperation.” Her articulate self-awareness undercuts the convention, but it remains familiar. Her particular desperation takes the form of occasional drunkenness and anxiety attacks (thus, the pills in her medicine cabinet), as well as a focus (again predictable) on a career that doesn’t thrill her.
And then, Julien (Melvil Poupaud). In another movie, the arrival of this charismatic, patient, slightly quirky French savior would be too tedious to bear. But Zoe Cassavetes’ film makes even this predictable turn seem slightly odd, even “refreshing.” He tells her she’s “très jolie,” she’s embarrassed but also intrigued — and Posey’s performance during these potentially too-precious moments of anticipation is perfect, suggesting Nora’s simultaneous desire, cynicism, and fear. As their weekend’s worth of a relationship (he’s in town working on a movie “project,” then on his way back to Paris, but of course) turns into something else, Nora is horrified, then desperate, then paralyzed. Julien leaves her with his cell phone number.
The movie should by rights end here, but it offers Nora one more chance. She and Audrey fly to Paris, ostensibly in search of Julien, but each arrive somewhere else, separately. It’s not that Audrey or Nora achieves an insight that’s unexpected — you’ve seen both their movies before. But even as Nora so plainly feels the pressure of what Vivian earlier describes as “too many choices,” she decides to take yet another risk against her better judgment. The film leaves to you to judge it as quixotic, vexing, or fitting.