Cédric Klapisch scored an international hit with L'Auberge Espagnole, a 2002 feature about an eager-to-please Frenchman spending a year sharing a Barcelona apartment with kooky trans-European grad students. It was a little too cute, but still warm, funny, and smart about how good friends can help a young man forge an identity and discover what he wants in life and love. Now, Klapisch has skipped ahead five years for the sequel Russian Dolls, and he's a little hamstrung by his earlier success. L'Auberge Espagnole reached such a satisfyingly emotional conclusion that Russian Dolls can't help but lurch in the re-start.
Romain Duris returns as the hero-narrator, an economist-turned-novelist whose first book (titled L'Auberge Espagnole, naturally) is gathering dust at publishers while he freelances as a TV scriptwriter and celebrity-biography ghostwriter. He's still friendly with lesbian financial analyst Cécile De France—or at least friendly enough to trade favors—and he still sees his ex-girlfriend Audrey Tautou, who treats him as a fall-back date and last-ditch babysitter for her toddler. At first, Klapisch doesn't seem to know why he's brought these characters back, except to show how the idealism of their mid-20s has begun to die at 30. But the story gels once Duris reunites with Espagnole's Kelly Reilly, who works with him on an English translation of one of his sappy TV scripts. They renew their friendship, then become closer, and just when they're about to head to St. Petersburg to celebrate the wedding of Reilly's brother (Kevin Bishop, another Espagnole holdover), Duris gets a job ghosting the memoirs of supermodel Lucy Gordon, and he finds he's willing to risk a homey romance for something more exciting.
Like François Truffaut's "Antoine Doinel" movie cycle and John Updike's "Rabbit" books, Klapisch's series relies on a lot of trumped-up presumptions about growing up bourgeois. It's fun to watch Duris globe-hop, but his relationship troubles aren't just hard to identify with, they're pretty ludicrous. (Ah, the supermodel-vs.-girlfriend dilemma to be 30 again!) Russian Dolls is at its best when Klapisch uses one of his stylistic flights of fancy to illuminate something plainer, like Tautou's princess complex, or Duris' observation on how nightclub vibrations call to us like heartbeats. In these small, insightful, and charmingly illustrated moments, Klapisch shows he has something real to say about what makes a life successful. He loses the plot some in movie number two, but these characters are still rich, and their potential growth still compelling. Here's hoping we meet them again in another five years.