Wicker Park (review)

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Canned Heat

Who decided Josh Hartnett could act? Where do they come from, these bland, boring, untalented pretty boys? Is there a factory somewhere in South America that extrudes them in flesh-colored silicone? How can we stop this?

Josh Hartnett wanders around Wicker Park like he’s been doped up with a low-dose horse tranquilizer, looking mildly bewildered, like his goldfish died, perhaps, or like he got stuck with vanilla ice cream when he really, really wanted chocolate. If only we weren’t asked to accept this as evidence of a longstanding romantic obsession, one that has revived itself when his ex-girlfriend suddenly shows up in his life again. Or has she? Lisa (Diane Kruger: Troy) disappeared out of Matthew’s (Hartnett: Hollywood Homicide, 40 Days and 40 Nights) life without a word two years earlier, and he’s been moping ever since… until he catches a glimpse of her dashing out of a ritzy Chicago restaurant. Or maybe he didn’t see Lisa at all, for when he tracks her down, she’s another girl named Lisa (Rose Byrne: also Troy), who’s short and brunette and weird where his Lisa was tall and regal and blonde and, like, so amazingly perfect. Matthew is crushed, and we can tell this because he rouses himself to a dazed stupor, and in his lethargic grief, he embarks upon a tepid affair with this new Lisa.
The idea of this fling being cold and dull would have worked, in a better film, as a contrast, as a demonstration, by comparison, of Matthew’s great passion for the original Lisa. But here — where director Paul McGuigan’s (The Reckoning) second mistake, after agreeing to translate such a convoluted mess of a script to the screen, was casting the detached Hartnett as his supposedly emotionally tortured protagonist — it’s just one more instance of the Sleepwalking Method. For we see, in a tangled sequence of flashbacks to Matthew and Lisa #1’s charmed relationship, that Hartnett is merely first among equals in this handsome, vapid cast, that none of them is able to project heat of any kind, not even the horny eagerness of sexually frustrated teens they all end up coming across as.

The snarls and snags of the unnecessarily elaborate plot are easily penetrated, even though they’re intended to create suspense and drama, and serve only to make the out-of-their-depth performers look even worse. Lisa #2 — whose name, it transpires, it really Alex — has a bit of a fixation on Matthew, having glimpsed him in passing years before and fallen instantly and madly in love with him… as Matthew himself did with Lisa #1 (stalking is acceptable when it’s dumb pretty boys doing the stalking, the message seems to be, but not when it’s dumpy, bookish girls, who invariably turn psycho when rejected). In past and present, Alex pulls nasty psychological tricks with both Matthew and Lisa (who is supposed to be Alex’s friend), including taking up with Matthew’s best friend (the ever unpleasant Matthew Lillard: Without a Paddle, Scooby-Doo 2) in a move that is meant, perhaps, to convey the twisted depths of Alex’s romantic dysfunction, though it never makes any sense at all. There is much spying on other people and the chasing of beautiful phantoms through city streets — Wicker Park features more sneaking around in other people’s apartments and desperate hailing of cabs than any single movie needs, and helps to create the impression that the film is 18 hours long.

The real issue is, though, that Hartnett et al have no idea how to create a story about the emotions of actual human beings instead of one about sneaking around and hailing cabs. They’re like little kids playing at grownup games of sex and obsession and passion, like perhaps they’ve heard about such things in French movies (Wicker Park is, in fact, based upon L’Appartement) but have no experience with such things in the real world at all.

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