On a lonely and very late night, Jonathan McQuarry is still doing the math on a corporate audit. He sits in a glass office overlooking a gorgeous and glowing New York cityscape. Enter Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman), a confident and charismatic lawyer who unexpectedly offers Jonathan a joint. They light up and Jonathan reveals everything about his life, but since he hasn't lived much it takes less than 40 minutes. Jonathan defines himself as someone who likes to solve problems and finds clear order of numbers appealing. Wyatt takes pity on Jonathan and takes him under his wing. Then they accidentally exchange cell phones and Jonathan gets the call asking if he's free that night. He says yes and ends up meeting a sexy businesswoman who just wants an uncomplicated night of sex. Jonathan has now joined "The List," an elite sex club for corporate players who don't have time for intimacy but desperately need to get laid.
One older woman (a still stunning and perfectly poised Charlotte Rampling) explains that it's "intimacy without intricacy." Jonathan is seduced in more ways than one. When he meets a lovely young blonde with the initial "S," he actually falls in love. The sex club forbids the use of names but Jonathan wants to break the rules and that leads to trouble, and he soon finds himself a suspect in a woman's disappearance and the pawn in a multi-million dollar heist.
Hugh Jackman and Ewan McGregor in Deception (20th Century Fox)
The idea for Deception came from screenwriter Mark Bomback, who also wrote last year's ridiculously fun Live Free and Die Hard . In that over the top actioner, plot improbabilities could be laughed off. I mean when you can have Bruce Willis hang onto a fighter jet and then jump to a moving semi, anything is possible. But Deception requires a subtler touch and a more credible environment. And unfortunately for us, Bomback can't deliver. The film keeps trying to convince us that it is a character driven story employing the trappings of a thriller but the characters are such cardboard cutouts that it's hard to buy. All this film has going for it is its genre trappings and that's not enough to make it a successful film.
The initial device that pulls Jonathan out of his cocoon isn't bad. But as the plot grows more complicated and turns into a major heist, it simply loses all credibility. The final wrap up involves so many last minute maneuvers that your head spins. The straw that broke the camel's back for me involves someone with no knowledge of how to forge documents managing to get a fake passport over a weekend. Anyone who has dealt with the passport department in post-9/11 America will know how difficult that would be. But the thing is that there could have been ways around this so that the audience wouldn't feel so manipulated. But on top of this there are so many other illogical, irrational and just plain stupid things that happen. I'd elaborate but I don't want to be accused of spoiling the plot.
But I did like one line Bomback gives to Jonathan to describe what his life's like: "I sit behind glass and watch people pass like fish." That's the only time that I felt like a got a little window into what Jonathan is really like.
Hugh Jackman not only stars in the film but also serves as one of its producers. When an actor takes on producing duties it usually means that the project was something that the performer really wanted to do. In the case of playing Wyatt Bose, it allows the usually likable Jackman to play a baddie and that's always tempting for an actor. In the pres materials, Jackman says, "Many thrillers push credibility to the limit. But I thought that this is something that could happen; this world could exist." Well if that was his evaluation of Bomback's script then he deserves the results. A ten-year-old could have spotted the way this film strained credibility. But maybe Jackman was so bored played romantic leads and action heroes that he just desperately wanted a change. And he might have been sold on the script just because he gets to tell nice boy Jonathan, "That was foreplay, and now you're f-ked." He did seem to enjoy delivering that line.
Michelle Williams and Hugh Jackman in Deception (20th Century Fox)
At the helm is first time director Marcel Langenegger who comes from the commercial world where you only have to sustain someone's interest for 30 seconds or maybe a couple minutes. You don't have to worry about whether you are developing believable characters and a sustainable plot. Now for someone without any feature credits to his name, the press materials - and I'll give the studio points for their cleverness here - had to dig for a description of the neophyte feature director and here's what they came up with: "Acclaimed for his distinct cinematic style, impeccable art direction and poignant storytelling in the commercial arena." Wow! Poignant storytelling! Even if he did do a spot for the charity Doctors Without Borders, that sounds like overblown and pretentious praise. But if he has those skills he doesn't show them off in Deception. New York looks beautiful, the offices are sometimes stunning and the people all look gorgeous but it's a hollow shell with nothing inside.
Part of the problem may be that if you want a character to come across as lonely, introverted and disconnected don't cast a star like Ewan McGregor. It's not that McGregor couldn't play a part like this but the film doesn't allow him to play the part in a manner that works. He looks too good and seems too well adjusted to be so susceptible to Bose's scam. Plus, with a title like Deception, it's almost like a challenge to the audience to be looking for the twists. So from early on - from the first scene, I'd even say - we know Bose is not what he pretends to be. So it's hard to buy into the whole premise when we are so skeptical from square one. Granted, Jonathan is supposed to be less sophisticated and more gullible but he's not meant to be an idiot. Plus he has to be smart enough to do some maneuvering of his own and he does brag about being a problem solver so to make Bose such an obvious con artist hurts the film.
By this time last year I had already seen 300, Hot Fuzz and Grindhouse and was well on my way to filling slots for my ten best list. But this year I think it's more like I'm on my way to filling up my list for the year's ten worst. I already have Jumper and 88 Minutes , now I can add Deception .
Deception (rated R for sexual content, language, brief violence and some drug use) is yet another disappointing Hollywood film. You'd think that with all the focus groups and test marketing Hollywood does that somewhere along the line someone would have said, "hey, don't you think this one strains credibility a bit too much?" Since Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is also opening this weekend and is unabashedly unrealistic, I think a lot of people will just be saying, "Hey dude, let's go see Harold and Kumar light up with Dubya." By comparison, that sounds more believable.
Companion viewing: Shallow Grave, The Shape of Things, Live Free and Die Hard