Wicker Park

(2004) ** 1/2 Pg-13
115 min. MGM/UA. Director: Paul McGuigan. Cast: Josh Hartnett, Rose Byrne, Matthew Lillard, Diane Kruger, Christopher Cousins.

Paul McGuigan's Wicker Park—based on the 1996 French film L'Appartement—deserves style points for sticking to an unconventional narrative made up of serendipitous missed connections and unexpected run-ins. Unfolding in carefully arranged flashbacks, Wicker Park insists that a romantic thriller need not rely upon weaponry or car chases to amplify the intrigue borne of the ultimate pulse-pounder: the heart.

McGuigan (The Reckoning) also imbues his film with visual style, overlaying images, compartmentalizing them, or fragmenting them into split screens (another split screen—a compact's broken mirror—figures into the plot). Though much of the acting is dull, it doesn't lack for conviction and at times capitalizes on a hypnotic understatement. Josh Hartnett plays Matthew (Josh Hartnett), a young businessman who dodges his fiancee Rebecca (Jessica Paré) to chase after a mystery woman in a nightclub. The mystery woman is Lisa (Diane Kruger), a dancer who has triggered an obsessive desire in the young man. After hooking up, the two lost track of each other; Matthew is due to take a crucial business trip to China, but instead his marital cold feet hit the pavement in search of his lost love.

Deferring the trip for a couple of days by all-too-credibly claiming sickness, Matthew quickly finds himself in over his head. Juggling his lonely investigation with a rekindled friendship (Matthew Lillard plays Hartnett's shoe-salesman buddy Luke), Matthew soon stumbles onto a third woman (Rose Byrne) living in what he assumes to be Lisa's apartment. Her name is also Lisa, and her fragile look apparently comes courtesy of a persistent ex-boyfriend she's trying to shake. Of course, for all we know, Matt, too, is a stalker in his pursuit of the other Lisa. During the film's midsection, the actualities of the characters and their relationships begin to come into focus; not all, as might be expected, is what it seems.

The ultimate resolution of the prodigious complications is disappointingly pat, after nearly two hours of fairly deft identity games which pleasingly test the viewer's capacity to reorder the film's events on the fly. "Love makes you do crazy things," says one character, by way of explanation; another shakes his head at "The lies we tell ourselves..." All of the characters practice deception, but one, in fact, is an actor; Shakespeare's Twelfth Night serves to reflect love's disguises and fateful feints. Wicker Park never ascends to the Bard's thematic heights, but McGuigan constructs an interesting formal exercise: exceedingly hard to swallow, but quietly engrossing.

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