In Bel Ami, Robert Pattinson plays a familiar role: a blank-faced creep able to seduce his way to the top thanks to his looks and his willingness to coast on little but said looks. Technically, he plays Georges Duroy, the amoral social climber at the center of Guy De Maupassant’s second novel, a soldier who returns to 1890 Paris from Algeria ready to glad-hand the powerful while banging their wives. As he penetrates a well-off newspaper, he does the same to Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas—a task that, rather than at least leaving a semi-permanent grin, produces from the Twilight kid only the occasional dickish smirk.
Word has it that, with his Cannes player Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg proved the one to finally do something interesting with Pattinson. That makes sense: The actor needs a mega-stylist to mold him like clay, which, with his ability to rock no more than three expressions, he basically is anyway. Pattinson clearly wants to be more than his goofy good looks—his flattened nose, his far-apart eyes, his aggressively pale complexion—but doesn’t have the chops, as witness his grotesque “impersonation” of Salvador Dalí in Little Ashes. This visible need to transcend himself makes him a dull boy, humor-impaired, funny only when he’s trying to act.
While he has the looks for Duroy, he lacks the screen presence, the requisite roguish qualities that would make Bel Ami more than a bundle of plot. Filmmakers Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod bet on this being a Barry Lyndon situation, in which Stanley Kubrick was able to exploit Ryan O’Neal’s powerful limitations for his own sly devices. But Lyndon revealed subtle depth—since untapped—in O’Neal’s screen presence, while Bel Ami merely has Pattinson act like a disused robot while his female co-stars (plus Colm Meaney) chatterbox around him. As his fuck buddies, Ricci, Scott Thomas and even Thurman provide more than deserved; the latter, who never feels home in a period piece, is quite promisingly comfortable here. But they’re propping up both a vacuous actor and a romp that, instead of relishing in its anti-hero’s fiendishly anti-heroic deeds, instead becomes as joyless as its star.