This film would make a perfect commercial thriller for James Spader and Rob Lowe were it still 1994. Unfortunately for their contemporary replacements, Hugh Jackman and Ewan McGregor, Deception arrives much too late to be shocking. Clearly, they were deceived. But not as much as audiences who have to wade through 108 minutes of this film in order to see all of the twists unfold in a perfunctory manner. One can imagine screenwriter Mark Bomback sitting with a noir checklist, checking off each element as he reached a marketable 100 pages or so. Still, if you can keep the plot from getting in the way, there is ample trashy entertainment to be found here.
Just take a look at this plot: Mousy, aliented accountant Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is given a breath of life from confident and successful ladies man Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) when the enigmatic man befriends him and gives him entrée to a private sex club known as "The List". Basically, if you're lucky enough to be on this list, the magic words, "Are you free tonight?" can initiate a night of strictly anonymous sex with no strings attached. "Intimacy without intricacy," he's told by none other than Charlotte Rampling (who should know). But following a romantic and, of course, platonic evening with a mysterious stranger known only as "S" (Michelle Williams), McQuarry finds himself in the middle of a trite noir plot filled with femme fatales, cold-blooded murder, illegal fund transfers to international bank accounts, switching identities, and other mayhem that Captain Obvious himself could've written.
This is the kind of post-Basic Instinct false bottom thriller that tries to juggle one implausibility after another just to keep the machine running. The plotting rides roughshod over the characters who just have to be dumb enough to be fooled by the next turn of events. Well, Bomback's characters are certainly dumb enough with McGregor's McQuarry being one of the dumbest schmucks in recent memory. McGregor actually deserves some credit for tackling such an epic moron. Oscar Winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) wrote in his book "Adventures in the Screen Trade" that stars don't like to play characters who ask too many questions. They like to play characters who KNOW. Well, kudos to McGregor here who dives headfirst into a character who doesn't seem to know anything outside of his job as an accountant and clearly has never seen a thriller before. He takes to Jackman's Wyatt Bose as a snot-nosed kid to his older brother. This seems to be the writer's game within the movie, playing some kind of coming of age story for McQuarry to go from innocent babe in the woods to a grown up man capable of handling himself in the dog-eat-dog world filled with wolves like Bose. It's a decent enough conceit but none of the characters have enough meat on their bones for any real impact.
The title of this movie was originally The Tourist, then The List, but neither has the perfectly anonymous quality of Deception which echoes the empty Campbell Soup labels of '90s thrillers like Shattered, and Body of Evidence. The only thing that saves these movies from spontaneous narrative combustion is directorial style and sly performances which can distract for at least 90 minutes. Deception's director and cast work hard and get us through the first 90 laughing with them, but the final 18 minutes are a total drag.
Successful commercial director Marcel Langenegger makes his feature film debut here and he, along with genius cinematographer Dante Spinotti, create an amazing looking film. On the production front, Langenegger is helped immeasurably by the timeless and elegant costume and production designs of Sue Gandy and Patrizia Von Brandenstein as well as a startlingly effective score by Ramin Djawadi. In fact, the film is so handsomely made you get the impression that all of these people must've been under the impression they were adapting Tolstoy or something instead of some lazy pulp thriller.
Jackman, who also produced the film, has taken the most mechanical role as "Wyatt Bose/Jamie Getz" but he's the right actor to do it since he has the theatrical craft to shift gears at will. Lesser performers would try to find a link between the two sides of Bose, but Jackman just plays it as written, making Bose more effective as an enigma. Besides, very few actors can get away with saying, "That was foreplay and now you're f**cked" with a straight face. Jackman plays it like Shakespeare.
In many ways, this is less a complete film than a film of interesting moments-of chance meetings with quirky actors who fill up the time. When McQuarry goes on his sexcapades through the list, we get to meet three enchanting women played by actresses who bring their own history of cinematic sexuality to the roles. Charlotte Rampling, Natasha Henstridge, and Maggie Q each deliver a strong cameo that lingers long after their scenes have faded away. The odd casting of Michelle Williams is perhaps the most unfortunate in the film. Williams actually creates a good deal of sympathy and interest in her very cliched and underwritten role. Once again, the fragile looking actress demonstrates that she has more skills than might be expected.
The real problem with Deception is revealed in its concluding minutes. A surprise is revealed that fails to surprise and a identity reversal joke plays like a little league attempt at Patricia Highsmith. Not only is everything predictable, it's carried out without enjoyment. Someone really needs to stop filmmakers from creating caper plots in which the central theft is dramatized as a wire transfer on a laptop. This lameness is rivaled only by the worst killing in Godfather film history:Eli Wallach's death by poisoned cannoli scene in Part III. Bo-ring.
There are some great things on this DVD release from FOX and I'm not really talking about the picture and sound. The picture is fine and really does a great job in showing off the work of Spinotti. The sound mix could be better as the dialogue is mixed a bit too low at times forcing a raise in volume and grating teeth when the next scene explodes with music.
No, the fun is in the extras as we see a "Wolverined" Jackman with wildman hair and sideburns talking seriously about his role as producer and actor in the film and his producing partner John Palermo who appears to be a living mannequin with dark eyeliner and carefully sculpted brows. It is as of yet unconfirmed whether or not Palermo was once known as "Max Headroom".
The fun continues in the featurette "Club Sexy" which presents the case for real life sex clubs and has various sexperts commenting on the motivations for those involved. Uh, sex maybe?
There are three deleted scenes which add nothing of real value to the movie except for studio execs who don't understand storytelling and need to know just HOW someone could get a fake passport. Seeing these scenes makes you understand how hard it must be to make anything of value within the system. An Alternate Ending is clearly the scripted ending of the film as it matches the tone and narrative perfectly. Once again, the fact that the studio demanded it to be changed to the intelligence insulting climax of the theatrical release is clearly understandable. If you don't understand storytelling or filmmaking and you're in the business of storytelling and filmmaking, you might not know you are a moron. You are.
Finally there is a decent Director's commentary from Marcel Langenegger. The most interesting aspect revolves around his intense collaboration with cinematographer Dante Spinotti. It seems Spinotti, the veteran, wanted to shoot the film with the Panavision Genesis digital camera while Langenegger, the novice feature film director, wanted to stick with film. Their work is a compromise that is nothing short of brilliant, with film for day shots and well lit interiors and digital for low light scenes and night shots to create a real sense of darkness that only digital can capture. The most ridiculous aspect of the commentary revolves around the actor's prep for Michelle Williams. It appears she took pole dancing and striptease lessons to get into her role. She does not pole dance or strip in the movie and I have no idea how that experience helped her play scenes where she throws things at Hugh Jackman. Note to director: If your leading lady takes pole dancing and striptease lessons maybe she'd like to show off what she learned onscreen. In this case, it wouldn't even be exploitation since those scenes would've added some depth to her character. All we get from Jackman is a single line that says something about the "corner of the street" where he found her. Still, Williams DOES seem genuinely hurt by the statement which may be the result of her channeling memories of her pole dancing and striptease lessons. Maybe.
Reviewed By: Brian Holcomb
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