Movie Review: Bel Ami

I'm not sure why, but no one has been willing or able to speak truth to box-office power, so let me try:

Robert Pattinson is a terrible actor.

Oh, he's pretty enough, with his sleepy eyes and pouty lips. Let him play a vampire in the Twilight series and he's fine, for two reasons:

1) He's doing a James Dean impression.

2) He's sharing most of his scenes with Kristen Stewart, who has such a vital screen presence that he benefits from reflected glory.

But put him at the center of an actual movie -- as opposed to something presold and predigested like the Twilight films -- and he's revealed as an empty pretty boy, a black hole of talent.

If you don't believe that, go back and look at Little Ashes, where he was embarrassing as a young Salvador Dali; or Remember Me, a forgettable 9/11 romance; or Water for Elephants, in which he was chewed to pieces by a scenery-gobbling Christoph Waltz (and the elephants themselves).

Or watch him in the new Bel Ami, which opened in limited release June 8, in which he alternately smirks and pouts as a Belle Epoque social-climber. Adapted from a novel by Guy de Maupassant by a pair of directors -- Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod -- Bel Ami follows Pattinson's character, Georges Duroy, as he clambers from a roach-infested garret to the poshest chambers in 1890 Paris.

He starts with an old army buddy, Forestier (Philip Glenister), whom he runs into at a raucous can-can joint and who stakes him to a new set of clothes so he can come for dinner. At dinner, he meets Forestier's crowd, including the three women who will make his future: Clothilde (Christina Ricci), Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Madeleine (Uma Thurman).

Duroy leverages his acquaintance with Forestier, who works at a political newspaper, into his own gig on the paper, working for Virginie's husband, Rousset (Colm Meaney). He takes Clothilde as a lover and begins to enjoy the swank appurtenances that go with life in what passed for the fast lane.

Duroy is canny enough to turn each setback he faces with the various men in his business life into a victory with one of their women. By the film's midpoint, he has married Madeleine (who is Forestier's widow) and seemingly become an arbiter of political and social fortunes at Rousset's newspaper. In fact, he's a pawn in a much larger scheme, and it's completely understandable that Pattinson himself would fall prey to it.

But the script is too sketchy by half and Pattinson lacks the resources to show us any inner life of this character. The story's point is that Georges is both foxy and self-deluding, but Pattinson can't carry both thoughts at the same time. Georges comes off as a petulant dope, who can think strategically but only in the broadest strokes. As a result, this becomes less a tale of intricate scheming and more one about a lucky dolt who fails upward.

The women are all more than capable, and Meaney is a cagey old pro. But they're undermined by Pattinson, who gives nothing and drains energy, turning Bel Ami into a kind of holding action between the directors' attempts to go forward and Pattinson's determination to sink the ship, simply with his enervating presence.

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