‘Bel Ami’ review: See Robert Pattinson have racy sex in not so hot costume drama

Robert Pattinson really wants your respect.

Ever since he became an instant star as vampire heartthrob Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” movies, he’s been scrambling to define himself as a serious actor. To his credit, Pattinson hasn’t signed on to any mindless action movie or cheesy thriller for the sake of a big payday. Instead, he’s opted for more character-driven material that should theoretically challenge him as an actor: the angsty indie romance “Remember Me” (which he also produced), glossy historical romance adaptation “Water for Elephants” (which gave him a chance to work with Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz) and now the dark period literary adaptation “Bel Ami.”

The problem is Pattinson is never entirely up to the challenges he’s giving himself. He was at his best in “Elephants,” which reined in his tendency toward hammy emoting, but still wound up overshadowed by his costars.

It’s even worse in “Bel Ami,” a poorly made and depressingly dull rendering of French author Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel. Pattinson stars as the willfully immoral Georges Duroy, who sleeps his way to the top of Parisian high society. Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod — theater vets making their big screen debut — somehow miss all opportunities for a juicy, sexy and dark costume drama and wind up with a torpid, flat chronicle of a selfish playboy with a bad attitude.

Pattinson tries — tries so hard — to turn Duroy into a compelling anti-hero. He glares, he scowls, he smashes bugs and smirks in contempt whenever another woman falls for his manipulative advances. You can practically hear the actor screaming, “See! I’m not just Edward Cullen!” And then he strips down to forcefully take a prostitute (played by fellow “Harry Potter” vet Natalia Tena) from behind. Would Edward do that!? Maybe Pattinson should consider the “Fifty Shades of Grey” adaptation after all…

While Pattinson struggles to stretch, Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas simply try to find something interesting to do as the women he uses and abuses. Despite the thinly drawn characterizations and murky motivations in Rachel Bennette’s screenplay, Ricci and Thurman do score a few effective moments of screen time: Ricci as a cheerfully lusty pleasure-seeker who would happily support Duroy as her extramarital lover, if only he’d remain faithful to her, and Thurman as a society woman who rebuffs Duroy’s advances even as she aids his career as a journalist, until her own husband dies. As for Scott Thomas, I have no idea what she’s doing in this movie playing the meekest and least complex of Duroy’s lovers and I’m not sure she does either.

You can’t blame Pattinson for all of “Bel Ami’s” failings — there’s nothing inspired enough in the filmmaking or the supporting performances to suggest a different lead would’ve dramatically improved the overall product — but as the star expected to bring people to the film he’s the one in the hot seat. As an actor trying to take the opportunities “Twilight” gave him and build a lasting career, he’s going to need to start making better choices, fast.

“Bel Ami” is currently available via video on demand and opens in limited release on June 8