Copacabana proves that Isabelle Huppert can do anything, including starring in a trivial mother-daughter dramedy that’s beneath her considerable talents. Marc Fitoussi’s film revolves around Huppert’s Babou, a single mom whose frivolous globetrotting life has now fully alienated her from 23-year-old child, Esméralda (Huppert’s actual offspring Lolita Chammah), who resents her parent for not providing a stable upbringing and household, and is embarrassed by her wild, carefree, juvenile behavior. When Esméralda callously disinvites Babou to her forthcoming nuptials out of fear that her mother will mortify her new in-laws (a blatantly and implausibly extreme decision, given that Babou remains loving and devoted to Esméralda), Babou endeavors to become responsible, which takes the form of accepting a job selling timeshare apartments in a gray, rainy seaside Belgian town.
Fitoussi’s depiction of this particular real-estate industry is pitiless: Babou is forced to share an apartment with a bitchy older woman (Chantal Banlier) who instinctively hates the fashionably dressed, confident Babou, and her boss Lydie (Aure Atika) is a hard-ass who, when not arguing with her boyfriend on the phone or yelling at construction workers, coldly promotes the business’s produce-or-leave attitude toward its economically desperate employees. Yet while Copacabana’s rhythms are invitingly leisurely and its milieu feels real, almost nothing else about it does. Despite a Huppert performance that feels effortless in its expression of hurt and panic concealed beneath a cheery people-person façade, Babou (and her dynamic with Esméralda) remains a dull cliché: the endearingly irresponsible adult who must learn to grow up for the benefit of her child (who, in turn, must learn to accept her parent’s charming eccentricities).
Similarly, Fitoussi’s script is full of relationships and developments that come off as writerly contrivances, from Babou’s two-night-stand romance with a dock worker (Jurgen Delnaet) to, far phonier still, her altruistic friendship with a homeless couple (Nelly Antignac and Guillaume Gouix) whom she secretly lets stay in one of her firm’s unused apartments, a decision that leads to the very sort of third-act trouble one might expect from such a scenario. Artificial twists abound, culminating with a finale that doesn’t have its characters earn triumphant reconciliation through hard work and sacrifice but, instead, via cheap, deux ex machina means. Throw in two instances of grown-ups enjoying some late-night pot-smoking, and Fitoussi’s film—regardless of its celebration of Babou’s indefatigably liberal, happy-go-lucky spirit—winds up operating according to a formula that’s as musty and conventional as they come.