Based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami is supposed to be a sultry and exciting tale of lust and ambition, set against the lush backdrop of 1890s Paris -- all with subtle commentary on the era's social mores and class warfare brewing just beneath the surface. But that's not exactly what materializes onscreen. What you end up getting out of Bel Ami is a one-dimensional take on a multidimensional story -- and the dimension that's singled out isn't always particularly enjoyable.
The story revolves around Georges Duroy (Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson), a charming but shrewd young newspaper columnist who never got over his impoverished childhood. The years of deprivation have germinated in him an insatiable sense of greed, which he indulges toward money, women, and power. Case in point: He only got his sweet newspaper gig because the editor, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), is an old army buddy. But that doesn't stop Duroy from beginning a secret and mostly inappropriate relationship with Forestier's wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman), as well as Madeleine's married friend Clotilde (Christina Ricci) and the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) of the paper's owner. Duroy's multiple affairs quickly become a Dangerous Liaisons-esque web of manipulation and sex-as-revenge as he sleeps his way to the top.
This description sounds saucy and fun, but when it's brought to life onscreen, what could have been a riveting, erotic soap opera instead plays as pretty dull and sometimes even icky. It's reasonably sexy at times (namely, when people are having sex), but it can also be depressing and gross (namely, when people are having sex). Not that all carnal escapades have to be tawdry and hot, but whatever transpires, a story this charged should make for an awesome and enthralling movie experience. But Bel Ami falls very short, mostly because Pattinson doesn't have what it takes to make Duroy seem compelling and interesting, even when he's clearly doing terrible things. While the actor is an expert at brooding (a key element of Duroy's persona, for sure), he lacks the humor needed to offset all of the protagonist's self-serving maliciousness. He makes Duroy so troubled and serious all the time, the character doesn't play as an oddly likeable rake, but rather as a borderline sociopath -- which, as it turns out, is not very fun to watch.