Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

American half-sisters Roxeanne (Naomi Watts) and Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson) learn that what passes for worldliness in Santa Barbara doesn't make the grade in Paris, where the semiotics of sugar — cubes vs. granulated — and accessories could fill a book. Poet Roxeanne is married to aspiring painter, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupard); younger half-sister Isabel is at loose ends and comes to Paris to spend time with her three-months-pregnant sibling and figure out what she wants to do with her life. She arrives just as Charles-Henri is abruptly abandoning Roxeanne for his girlfriend. Taking their cue from Charles -Henri's formidable mother, Mme. de Persand (Leslie Caron), his relatives admit among themselves that he's behaving abominably. But they maintain an air of chic self-possession and take refuge in centuries-old proprieties, dismissing Roxeanne's wounded raging as vulgar indulgence. How they deplore wallowing in sloppy feelings! A proper French girl would buy new lingerie, engage a politely ruthless lawyer and get on with le divorce. Roxeanne begins crumbling beneath the pressure of pregnancy and Charles-Henri's family, particularly their opportunistic interest in her beloved painting of St. Ursula, which experts have recently suggested might be a little-known work by George de la Tour. Isabel, meanwhile, gets into the Parisian groove. She takes a job arranging the papers of an older, American expatriate writer, Olivia Pace (Glenn Close), improves her French via a casual affair with the bohemian Yves (Romain Duris), and begins an oh-so-sophisticated liaison with cultivated, much-older rake Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte). That Edgar is Mme. De Persand's married brother, one of many relatives who gather weekly for dinner at the family's country estate, only complicates an already tangled situation. The writer-producer-director triumverate of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ismael Merchant and James Ivory generally fares better with period pieces than contemporary stories, but Diane Johnson's modern-day comedy of manners, a National Book Award finalist, is also a self-conscious homage to Henry James's transatlantic novels — note that "Isabel Walker" echoes Portrait of a Lady's Isabel Archer. Team M-I knows its way around James and ignores the lazy stereotype of Americans as gauche rubes bumbling around Paris like barbarians at the ballet in favor of sly digs at French and American mores alike. But though the ensemble cast is a triumph of apt casting, Isabel's pivotal affair with Edgar is strangely bloodless and the story's uneasy, 11th-hour detour into half-hearted thriller territory is awkwardly handled. Quel dommage.