‘Chinese Puzzle’: A puzzled Frenchman finding his path to happiness

Director Cedric Klapisch’s “L’auberge Espagnol” was one of the critically acclaimed independent hits of 2002. Following the humorous adventures of young Frenchman Xavier (Romain Duris), an Erasmus student in Barcelona, the film was not only a convincingly executed feel-good piece but also had some very astute observations of European youth culture.

Klapisch later made “Russian Dolls” in 2005, which again followed the life and times of Xavier as he tried to become a self-sufficient adult, a successful writer and find love.

After almost 10 years, Klapisch, actor Duris and the rest of the ensemble cast once again return with “Chinese Puzzle,” another excerpt from the life of Xavier, who is now in his 40s.

This time the cast and crew present us with a piece of cinema that combines the joy and intelligent humor of the first two installments and adds a layer of unexpected profoundness about what it truly means to become an adult and acknowledge the simplicity of happiness — not to mention the unapologetic and brilliant observations about multicultural life in New York.

The film starts in Paris, showing us the happy life of Xavier and his English wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and their two friendly children Mia and Lucas. Xavier and Wendy are both successful writers and Xavier has just landed a new book deal. The only problem is that Wendy isn’t happy anymore; she leaves Xavier and takes the children with her to live in Manhattan. Suddenly, Xavier is faced with the complications of life all over again. His editor is quite is happy because this means a lot of new drama in his new book!

Xavier doesn’t want to be separated from his children so on a whim he moves to New York, penniless. At least he’s got his best friend, Isabelle from Belgium, and her girlfriend Ju, with whom he can stay in Brooklyn until he figures things out.

Xavier is immediately faced with culture shock in the New World; his English isn’t so fluent, the city is densely populated and the American lifestyle is a bit too hectic for his European sensibilities.

Director Klapisch is ingenuous in how he emphasizes these cultural clashes by making Xavier adopt a self-mocking attitude that is not condescending but affably confused. A hilarious moment awaits the audience when he has to engage in small talk with Wendy’s new American boyfriend.

Adding to the complications of Xavier’s new life is the presence of Martine (Audrey Tautou), who is also a divorced parent with two children. Martine and Xavier are friends, but Martine’s frequent visits to New York spark the old romance between them.

Trying to balance all the different dynamics with these three different, intelligent females, Xavier also has to finish his novel and get a working visa to stay in the United States. He finally manages to get a small apartment in Chinatown (where the film is mainly set), gets a job as a bicycle courier, gets to spend time with his children and even marries a Chinese-American to get a green card.

He’s juggling too much at the same time, sometimes finding himself in the funniest of situations, but all’s well that ends well. What started out as a “Chinese Puzzle” ends up a simple equation to solve as Xavier finally understands that the only obstacle that stops one from reaching contentment is oneself and not one’s circumstances. Misery and complications might make great fiction, but real life, or more exactly adult life, is just about being honest with oneself and finding happiness in each significant or insignificant moment. Sounds corny, doesn’t it? Well, don’t put your cynical hat on because Klapisch will take it off for you in the 10th minute of his emotionally convincing and multilayered feel-good film.

Funny how it takes a French director to succeed at Hollywood’s most prominent and exported genre!

“Chinese Puzzle” is a film that will lighten your day and its most admirable aspect is that it achieves this lightness not by escaping reality but by embracing it. Additionally, the cultural-themed jokes are a bonus.