Victor Levin's 5 to 7 is a romantic drama about a young writer in Manhattan that could be a superhero flick if its leading man wore tights. It's as much a triumph of boyish wish fulfillment as Peter Parker swinging on skyscrapers. Brian (Anton Yelchin) is one of those suffering artists whose great tragedy is that at the age of 24, he has yet to be published by the New Yorker — or really, that he has yet to live a life worth writing about. Brian lives like a monk, wallpapers his room in rejection letters, and seems one step away from flagellating himself with the cord of his MacBook. How he supports himself is unclear. What is clear is that we're supposed to cut our hearts open for the poor dear who deserves to become one of the great writers of his generation simply because he wants it so badly.
One day on the street, Brian spots an older beauty named Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe) smoking a smelly European cigarette outside the St. Regis hotel. He crosses his fingers and attempts his clumsy français, and to his luck she's a French model, now retired (and, like Brian, also technically jobless, but who cares about her goals?). The two have one of those affected conversations people have when they imagine themselves to be characters on a page. After a few minutes of chatter, Arielle invites him to meet her outside the hotel exactly one week later if he'd like to see her again. Cell phones are so déclassé.
Thus begins their love affair, which is made up of forays to the rented room upstairs and lectures on what the French do right that Yankees get hopelessly wrong, a list that includes evaluating art, drinking wine ("You have the palate of a water buffalo," she sighs), going to the movies ("Can no American watch a film without popcorn?"), and having an affair. Arielle is the married mother of two, but Brian is aghast about the ethics of a Parisian 5-to-7 romance, so named for the predinner hours when a spouse's whereabouts are vague. Arielle's diplomat husband (Lambert Wilson) is fine with it. He brings his own mistress (Olivia Thirlby) home for dinner. Groans Arielle to her hesitant beau: "Maybe your culture needs to grow." Even the way she says his name feels like a snicker — that "Brian" is such an American caricature of a name.
To Brian — and to writer-director Levin — Arielle is the unforgettable romance, the one that will forever shape him into a Man With Something to Say. To us, Arielle seems like a schoolmarm lecturing her pupil. When Brian tries to impress her with a fancy turn of phrase, she retorts, "Maybe you should write fortune cookies." There's an odd disconnect between her actions and the film's insistence that this is a great love. The confusion is probably owed to Marlohe's stunning face and curves, framed in tight pink dresses and heels like she's a piece of ripe fruit. If this knockout handed Brian a gun and ordered him to kill the president, 5 to 7 would shrug, "It's just a French thing."
This could work if the film were a satire on the cultural arrogance of Old Europe — say, a script Mark Twain might have whipped up if he'd lived long enough to write Hollywood rom-coms. There is truth in 5 to 7's conflict between the prudish American and the relativistic French (though Arielle's husband is British, a land rarely stereotyped for its sexual liberation). Still, apart from diet tips and scarves, holding on to the idea that France and America are irreconcilably different seems musty in the internet age. Today, Manhattan has more in common with Paris than with Paris, Texas. Yet the old gag does allow Brian's concerned parents, Sam and Arlene (Frank Langella and Glenn Close), to rip a few good political zingers: "These are the same French who wouldn't let us fly over their country on the way to Qaddafi!" Sam hoots. Later, he snarls, "The French surrendered three times and couldn't wait to give up their Jews," to which Brian can only shrug that most other countries gave them up too.
The larger issue is there's no credibility to Arielle and Brian's romance. We get why he likes her — who wouldn't? But what does she see in this nine-years-younger naif she treats like a slow child? At a posh dinner party, he looks like an embarrassing twit horning in at the adults' table. And in casting Yelchin, a dead ringer for an icon of Saint Sebastian, and pushing the sex scenes to a tasteful 25 feet away from the camera, the film rejects that this affair is about physical heat. Making this out to be a love affair of the mind and soul feels like a middle-school girl rationalizing her crush on Justin Bieber.
Levin inserts montages of the love inscriptions on the bench plaques of Central Park, a sweet touch with shades of When Harry Met Sally. Yet Rob Reiner saw the foibles in his leads. By the end of 5 to 7, we're sick to death of rooting for Brian to channel his improbable affair into a writing career and become the hero he's meant to be: another privileged male wunderkind who has it all, including the lasting love of a beauty he never earned. It's time to retire this artistic-martyr trope — or at least start applying it to women as well. And, no: A heroine spinning a romance into a self-help book or sex column doesn't count.