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'Wicker Park': Seeing Is Deceiving

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page C01

A movie such as "Wicker Park" is a movie critic's favorite, and because it has so many secrets, I can say very little about it and may get out of here before 3 p.m.

Its best thing, however, is its screenplay: not so much that the dialogue is brilliant or the characters closely observed but that the plotting is ingenious. This is a smart movie, full of astonishing reverses and switchbacks, and it adroitly walks the thin line between too clever by half and not clever enough by three-quarters.

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Obviously it's French. Okay, it used to be French, and in France, where it was made in 1996, it starred Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci. That version, written and directed by Gilles Mimouni, may have been better (I never saw it), chiefly on the strength of Cassel's superiority as an actor over Josh Hartnett and Bellucci's superiority as a beauty over Diane Kruger, who has a face that launched only 323 ships (she starred in "Troy," remember?).

In this remake, the screenwriter (adapting Mimouni) is Brandon Boyce and the director is Scotsman Paul McGuigan, both able craftsmen, even if the director has an annoying fondness for visual showing off. We could do with a lot less of the multiple cameras jazz and the collided images.

The film begins, like so many others laced with yuppie angst and paranoia, with a beautiful young man who seems to be the object of a vast, dark plot, presumably because he's so beautiful. That fellow, Matthew (Hartnett), is sitting in a Chicago restaurant with his fiancee, her brother and two Chinese clients, and all are anticipating his trip to China that very evening to close a big deal. But then he goes to the bathroom, and becomes convinced on scanty evidence that a woman who's just fled -- he heard a voice, caught a glimpse -- is the one he loved desperately two years ago.

The movie slides quickly to flashback, where it reveals that Matthew, then a scruffy photographer and photo shop employee, met and fell in love with a beautiful dancer, Lisa, played by Kruger. It was one of those, you know, one of those things: first sight, eye contact and soul convergence, just like a movie or something. They merged, totally, and just when he asked her to move in with him -- his generation's equivalence to popping the question, I suppose -- she utterly disappeared, leaving him shattered. He moved to New York, began a new life, met a new woman and now he's back in Chicago.

Stunned to see her, he (rather irresponsibly) gives up on the China trip and the new life and even the poor fiancee (Jessica Pare) and obsessively seeks Lisa, based on a few clues she seems to have left behind: a compact and a hotel room entry card.

You can certainly see how much better this would have played with the worldly Cassel than it does with Hartnett, who is so boyish he seems about 13 (he's 26). But Hartnett is all right, if you can get by the aw-shucks mannerisms and the stupid Navy watch cap he wears like a wet doily as the flashback signifier. In the present, he quickly enlists his best friend, Luke (Matthew Lillard), in the hunt for Lisa, even though Luke has just taken up with a new girlfriend, Alex (Rose Byrne).

Of course you know that nothing is what it seems. In fact, this is a nothing-is-what-it-seems movie, par excellence. It somehow folds upon itself, until it could be said that the subject of the second half of the movie is the first half of the movie, and the narrative accounts for all its seemingly random events. In a sense, the movie is about movie-watching: illustrating that we may miss the whole story if we're only looking at the pretty stars.

And, even better, as it deconstructs the backstage manipulations, it ultimately reveals the sick force behind all the deceptions and maneuvers, and that force turns out to be . . . an evil multinational corporation polluting the environment and selling defective automobiles! Wrong. Okay, a sexually obsessive gay millionaire gun collector who has long coveted Matthew? Wrong again. That's the best part: You'll never guess.

Wicker Park (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexuality and language.


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