The bottom line is that "Cheri" plays it safe. For a story about an intergenerational relationship between a moody teenager (Rupert Friend) and a retired lady of the evening (Michelle Pfeiffer), "Cheri" risks offending exactly no one. The film is apparently R-rated, which is puzzling, as the scenes of sensuality barely border on the suggestive, and I completely fail to recall the "brief drug use" outlined by the MPAA. It's a sallow, forgettable piece of filmmaking that owes its only redeeming qualities to earlier, edgier artists. "Harold and Maude," for example, sort of broke the age barrier for romance films back in '71, and the cinematic landscape is peppered with more interesting depictions of prostitutes.
"Cheri" also lacks a consistent, elegant art direction, usually a staple in even mediocre period pieces. Production designer Alan MacDonald's costumes are gaudy and caricatural, though perhaps impressive if only for their sheer audacity. If widest sunhat diameter or most phosphorescent gown are new categories at this year's academy awards, "Cheri" has them in the bag. Macdonald's set design also under-impresses, rarely providing more than a stodgy veneer of the early nineteenth century, a chasm between the source material that's only widened by the wincingly mawkish dialogue. Christopher Hampton's screenplay paints Lea and her eponymous partner Cheri as cardboard lovers, and Pfeiffer and Friend's sexual chemistry is almost non-existent.
The rest of the performances are passable, though the inauthentic dialogue is a constant stumbling block, even for the usually-stellar Kathy Bates, who seems oddly defanged and miscast in her supporting role as Cheri's manipulative mother. The characters are veiled in a layer of faux-elegance, feeling more often like uniformed impressions of turn-of-the-century women than the genuine article. The suspension of disbelief is kept at arm's length.
But I don't mean to suggest that "Cheri" is at all a worthless film; it's just an unnecessary one, which is almost as bad. The story itself is adequate, but has no strong reason for existence. Colette's novels ("Cheri" and "The Last of Cheri"), which were combined for the film version, saw publication in France in 1920 and 1926 respectively, assumedly to a more scandalized audience then today's, which two weeks ago were witness to the spectacle of Sacha Baron Cohen's "Bruno."
"Cheri" is too reserved a film to justify recommendation. It brings nothing new to the filmmaking landscape in either content or craft, and though the score by Alexandre Desplat is impressive, probably the picture's highlight, it seems to have wandered into "Cheri" from some more interesting film, upbeat and suspenseful while the plot is languid and sedentary.
I don't think I'm letting my prejudice get the better of me in the case of "Cheri." Romance fan or no, there isn't a clear reason why Frears' latest is worth seeking out, even for free.