Saturday, May 3, 2008

Exactly As It Seems: Deception

Deception is bits and pieces of movies we’ve seen before (but can’t always identify) squeezed together to provide a familiar yet skewed vision, like the reflection in a shattered mirror; it’s less a movie than it is movie refuse repacked under a fresh sheet of cellophane. The screenplay is by Mark Bomback, who previously handled the script for Live Free Or Die Hard, but it feels like a novice effort, the kind of thing conjured up by college buddies sitting on barstools who fail to grasp the subtle difference between making something that’s like their favorite movies and making something that is a watered-down clips reel of their DVD collection.

The movie stars Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams as characters who often aren’t who they seem to be. Possessing a plot-twisty, mysterious air, Deception is one of those films that’s difficult to discuss in any depth without offering spoilers, which works to its advantage: If I protect Deception’s secrets, I’ll never get around to describing the abominable scene less than 30 minutes before the end of the picture when Jackman’s bad guy – apparently still undeveloped – spends what seems like an eternity groping the emotionally shattered blond played by Williams as he ties together loose plot threads in a Dr. Evil-esque monologue, the score adopting a high-pitched “something is wrong here” whine. It’s a scene that belonged on the cutting room floor, or that better yet would have been torn from the screenplay and never shot. And yet the movie’s cumbersome-to-develop but all-too-obvious plot structure wouldn’t work without it. There’s the rub, and it leaves a rash.

Watching Jackman working from the soap opera over-actor’s handbook as poor Williams stands there to have her breasts fondled, I couldn’t help but wonder if they had read the entire script before signing on to the project. Deception has a handful of brutal moments like that one that have “pass” written all over them. What the film lacks are scenes that explain to me why any of the lead actors opted-in. Well, maybe there’s one: McGregor, playing a nerdy numbers cruncher who through some extreme plot contrivances winds up in a “sex club,” is endearingly awkward and hopeful in a scene where his Jonathan McQuarry tries to guess the name of Williams’ reticent “S” during a sex appointment turned budding romance. Beyond that though, the film is as emotionally dark as its after-hours Manhattan setting.

Yes, after-hours. That’s where it all begins, with a joint offered to Jonathan by Jackman’s slick, cool lawyer with the slick, cool name: Wyatt Bose. The men hit it off like Richie Cunningham and Fonzie, and their marijuana date turns into tennis, clubbing and coffee in the park where, oops, their identical cell phones get swapped by mistake. Raise your hand if you think that’s going to be important? It is! Wyatt is a member of a fuck-a-night phone club. Women call, ask if Wyatt is “free tonight” and then name a hotel for a hot, steamy rendezvous with the expectation that there will be no names exchanged, only bodily fluids. Wyatt heads out of the country on business leaving Jonathan to keep up his perfect sex club attendance (beats taking in the mail), and despite having almost no experience with women Jonathan turns out to be a lean boot-knocking machine. (Had this storyline been allowed to continue, the movie might have been called The Natural.)

The idea of the sex club is that it’s for business professionals with no time for personal lives, apparently because they’re spending all their free time in the gym. Jonathan meets hard-bodied hottie after harder-bodied hottie, including a lingerie-clad Maggie Q and Williams’ “S,” the thin-necked porcelain doll he’d just happened to pass on the street a few weeks earlier and been enchanted by ever since. The only participant Jonathan meets with an ass unlike a trampoline is a 62-year-old who acts as his sex club Obi-Wan Kenobi. She’s played by Charlotte Rampling (who else?), an actress who has spent recent years conditioning herself for such a sex-obsessed role in sex-obsessed movies like Swimming Pool, Heading South and Basic Instinct 2. (Helen Mirren would have been the only other acceptable choice.)

It’s a small part, but a memorable one, and Rampling radiates in it. I won’t go so far as to say that Rampling hasn’t been nipped, tucked or Botoxed over the years, but if she’s had work done it’s been subtle (unlike, say, Mia Farrow who these days looks like Helena Bonham Carter in Planet Of The Apes). The point is that Rampling is as genuinely sultry and sexy and also as genuinely aged as the role requires, a combination that’s becoming hard to find. In one brief shot, a topless Rampling, straddling McGregor, pins her partner to the bed with erotic fervor, her veteran breasts swinging up toward his schoolboy face. I spent the next 10 minutes contemplating the shooting of that scene and wondering what Rampling and McGregor chatted about between takes, which says quite a bit about Deception: its casting choices are more interesting than its characters.

I haven’t even mentioned the film’s key conflict: “S” is held hostage by Wyatt who isn’t a cool, slick lawyer after all. No shock there. The movie doesn’t hide the rubber-necked confusion demonstrated by Wyatt’s supposed coworkers, who can’t figure out why he’s pretending to know them. As a result, we’re about five steps and 45 movie minutes ahead of Jonathan. We know that after he’s done getting screwed by beautiful babies that he’s going to end up being screwed by Wyatt, leading to the inevitable scene when he shows up at Wyatt’s office and home address and finds nothing but strangers and blank stares. Likewise, late in the movie, we know that the computer operation Jonathan must perform in order to save “S” will take exactly one second less than he has to perform it. We know these things because we’ve seen them before in other movies, some of them good movies. Any of them movies we’d rather be watching than this one.

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