We hear Nick (Jim Broadbent) before we see him in Le Week-end. He makes a noise that sounds like a cross between a grunt and a sigh. It's a meaningful introduction to who he is. Meg (Lindsay Duncan), his fed-up wife of 30 years, has stopped seeing him as a human being with wants and emotions. You get the sense that, for her, he's just a collection of over-familiar tics, aches, complaints and smells. The couple are on an anniversary trip to Paris, that storied city of love, but by the way Meg recoils from Nick's touch you can't help but think the money they doled out for this trip would have been better spent on a divorce lawyer.
She's withholding, and he's hungry. She's cruel, and he's as pathetic as a dog that's just been kicked. She wants him to act more like a man, and he sulks that she's the one who turned him into a feminist. They fight about money, retirement, Nick's polite overtures toward sex, a disappointing son, and their endlessly compromised hopes and dreams. Then they share a laugh, a meal or a heartfelt look -- some tiny respite from long-nursed resentments -- and the sinking ship rights itself. Then the cycle repeats. And repeats.
Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi regularly dance to the edge of despair. The strong cast of Le Week-end will keep you from wishing the filmmakers would just jump and get it over with. Meg and Nick's squabbles are like a ricocheting bullet: They fill the room with tension but always hit the same target. As a result, Le Week-end feels less substantial than Richard Linklater's thematically similar Before Midnight. But Duncan and Broadbent are marvelous, fleet-footed players, and they make the proceedings much funnier than they should be. The actors find new ways to animate Meg's fury and Nick's sadness, as well as the couple's habit of banding together when outsiders encroach.
Jeff Goldblum plays one such outsider, a former Cambridge crony who has far outpaced Nick's middling career. Goldblum tears into this small part with lip-licking and brio, but it really exists only to nudge Nick into a scorched-earth monologue that lists all the ways he has failed in life. It's the kind of grandstanding that writers get giddy over -- and actors, too -- but an earlier scene achieves the same effect more economically and viscerally. Nick raids the hotel-room minibar and lip-syncs to "Like a Rolling Stone," earbuds in so as not to disturb his sleeping wife. A lifetime of frustrated yearning is exposed in a few moments of drunken warbling.