As a born-too-late generational lament, The Invisible Circus seldom gets beyond canned nostalgia and exhausted signifiers; as a coming-of-age travelogue, it purees its summer-in-Europe epiphanies into something with the flavor and consistency of a Jewel poem. By the late 1970s, the purple haze has long since lifted over San Francisco, but teenage Phoebe (Jordana Brewster) remains morbidly fixated on the lost era that her late sister, Faith (Cameron Diaz), has come to personify. A radicalized Faith took off for Europe nearly a decade ago and, after a spell of prankish, continent-wide rabble-rousing, threw herself off a cliff in Portugal.
A more intuitive writer-director could have extracted a credible study of time-warped bereavement from Jennifer Egan’s extensively praised novel, but Adam Brooks’s turgid adaptation merely emphasizes the book’s stiff contrivances and wobbly characterizations. Phoebe embarks on her own European pilgrimage, her impromptu itinerary based solely on a stack of old postcards from Faith. Her psychological journey is less haphazard, dutifully offering mind expansion, self-discovery, disenchantment, and finally long-overdue exorcism. The callow, credulous Phoebe is continually disabused of her abstracted ideal of dead big sis—flashbacks reveal a scared, confused girl underneath all that May ’68 sloganeering.
Faith’s hippie boyfriend, Wolf (Christopher Eccleston), now living in bourgie comfort in Paris, serves as Phoebe’s tour guide, conduit to the past, and, in time, creepily baggage-laden love object. Eccleston’s tart, semi-sullen delivery keeps the encroaching sap at bay for a while, but he’s thwarted by the dismayingly blank Brewster. Diaz, as usual, emerges untarnished, her oblivious radiance more sweetly charitable than ever given the drab, mirthless context. Faith brings about her ruin when she joins a group of German terrorists; Diaz responds to this solemnly outlandish scenario by suggesting an altogether winning cross between the obdurate protagonist of Volker Schlöndorff’s new political drama, The Legend of Rita, and her own ebullient Charlie‘s Angels persona.
Another young woman stumbling toward self-knowledge far from home, Leah (Catherine Kellner), a perky blond, works at an English-language Beijing daily. Jule Gilfillan’s Restless is billed as the first U.S.-China coproduction, and the writer-director, a USC grad who also studied at the Beijing Film Academy, plots the trajectories of two border-traversing romances: Leah rebounds from a misguided fling with a philandering American by falling for a dashing chess master (Geng Le). Meanwhile, Chinese American surf bum David (Richard Kao) is dispatched to native soil with Grandpa’s ashes and begins a tentative courtship with his cousin-by-marriage (the excellent Taiwanese actress Chen Shiang-chyi).
Relying on rote culture-clash pratfalls, Gilfillan belabors the symmetries: The cocky foreign-born son comes under the sobering, humbling influence of the motherland; the habitual expat confronts her nomadic impulses and obsession with otherness. Conventionally upbeat romantic resolution is sidelined in the interest of personal growth, and the filmmaker even punctures her heroine’s sense of entitlement (normally irrefutable in modern romantic comedy) with what might be read as harsh auto-critique: “You’ve made China your personal Disneyland,” someone snaps at Leah. Perhaps because the permission of Chinese censors was required, the movie retreats from cross-cultural posturing into apologetic isolationism: Home, we’re left to conclude, is where the blood ties are.