Lightweight Comedy 'French Kiss' Labors Under a Lackadaisical Pace

AT first glance, ''French Kiss'' seems to be a nicely multinational comedy: It's about an American woman who chases her Canadian fiance from Toronto to Paris, finding a new French boyfriend along the way.

Hollywood rarely puts much effort into portraying non-American people or places, however, and by the halfway mark it's clear that ''French Kiss'' has no more cultural diversity than the average studio romance. The heavily accented French hero is played by Kevin Kline, who hails from Missouri, and the parts of the story set in Paris and Cannes might as well have been shot on a California soundstage, so little authentic atmosphere do they carry.

Even the picture's genuine French actors, Jean Reno and Francois Cluzet, are most familiar to US audiences for English-language pictures like ''The Professional'' and ''Ready To Wear,'' respectively. In all, ''French Kiss'' cares a lot more about the second word of its title than the first.

Also disappointing is the movie's oddly lackadaisical pace, which is enervating at best and slows almost to a crawl when Meg Ryan is expected to carry a scene.

She's an attractive actress, with a flair for comedy that has given a needed lift to pictures like ''When Harry Met Sally...'' and ''Sleepless in Seattle,'' two of her best credits. But she's not effervescent enough to rescue a really bad movie like ''Prelude to a Kiss'' or ''The Presidio.'' In the hands of a laid-back stylist like director Lawrence Kasdan, her timing and delivery become perilously flat, draining energy from scenes that don't have much to begin with. Neither script nor director provide the support Ryan needs.

Kline fares better as the rogue she falls in love with, almost equaling the first-rate work he did in ''Silverado'' and ''Grand Canyon,'' pictures that made good use of his flair for eloquent understatement. Reno and Cluzet make reasonably good showings, and Timothy Hutton is suitably shallow as the runaway boyfriend.

With an occasional burst of snappy dialogue in Adam Brooks's screenplay, the film is not entirely lacking in pleasures. But so many talented people should have come up with a confection more ingratiating, if not more inspired. Kasdan deserves most of the blame for its shortcomings. His previous pictures range from ''The Big Chill'' to ''The Accidental Tourist.'' Many were hits, but none very deep. While he knows the skills of moviemaking, he rarely bestirs himself to do something exceptional with them.

The marvelous exception to this pattern is ''Grand Canyon,'' which has a philosophical and spiritual resonance that carry it way beyond Kasdan's usual level. I've been waiting four years for him to reach that pinnacle again, and since it hasn't happened, I'm starting to suspect that his ''Grand Canyon'' writing partner, spouse Meg Kasdan, was the real creative force behind that picture.

I suggest she take the helm of the next Kasdan production and give it the same glow ''Grand Canyon'' had. That would be far more rewarding than the flimsy gratifications ''French Kiss'' has to offer.

r ''French Kiss'' has a PG-13 rating; it contains vulgar language, sexual situations, and fleeting nudity.

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