Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.1.08


Zero Sum Game
Jackman and McGregor play with numbers

DECEPTION: Directed by Marcel Langenegger. Written by Mark Bomback. Cinematography, Dante Spinotti. Music, Ramin Djawadi. Starring Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams. Twentieth Century Fox, 2008. R. 108 minutes.

Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor in Deception

Forgive me for sounding coarse, but if a film sets out to chronicle a shy accountant’s plunge into a sex club, that film better contain some pretty darn convincing accounting. Accountants, after all, are the goats of the financial world, always crunching numbers here, gnashing pencils there, digesting everything in sight, but in Deception they come off as shallow and distracted, putting the fragile conceit — bashful bean counter gets in deep — dangerously close to confabulation. As to whether Deception’s Jonathan (Ewan McGregor) is all that retiring a fellow, I’m unconvinced, what with the way he executes some very un-Jonathan like moves during his first sexual encounter. Then again, the real scandal is his demeanor at work the following day, when very little actual work takes place other than Jonathan staring at his computer, as if, God forbid, it’s all he can do to get through the day before his next mattress-crushing sexual peccadillo. I ask you: What accountant behaves like that?

Deception commences when Jonathan, our stumblebum auditor, is invited by Wyatt (Hugh Jackman) to join a secret sex club called “the List”— here I thought lists were for simpler pleasures, like buying yogurt and sending holiday cards — after which Jonathan experiences a drastic change of fortune. Actually, Wyatt doesn’t invite Jonathan as such: He switches their cell phones when Jonathan isn’t looking. Soon after, Jonathan receives a call from a very assertive prostitute. This phone is a datalink to the world’s hottest women, all of whom receive Jonathan’s calls with breathy interest, despite the fact that Jonathan sounds nothing like Wyatt and looks like a skinnier version of Emilio Estevez. Jonathan keeps the phone perpetually unholstered and in use, but before long Wyatt comes calling for it, bringing with him a terrifying proposal: If Jonathan doesn’t divert money to Wyatt during his next corporate audit, Wyatt is going to kill “Sunbeam” (Michelle Williams), a List-employed prostitute to whom Jonathan has pledged his heart. I kept waiting for Jonathan to utter “zero sum game,” but as I’ve mentioned, it appears Jonathan is a sex addict with a numbers problem, not the more chaste reverse.

Some of you may remember the great line from The Princess Bride when Inigo, flustered, says to the recently dead Westley, “Let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up.” Of Deception’s many flaws, I can provide but a brief overview, including a preposterous initial encounter involving Wyatt, Jonathan and a joint of marijuana; the way Wyatt’s every move, including the phone swap, is telegraphed, or better yet, pre-digested and then spooned to us, as if we were comatose; or how it never occurs to Jonathan that “Sunbeam” is hardly the ray of light she appears to be and may just be in cahoots with Wyatt. The film’s fatal wound, however, is the one most self-inflicted: Deception opts to reveal Wyatt as a con man almost immediately — to the audience, but not to Jonathan. This technique works under highly controlled circumstances, The Departed being a recent example, but in Deception the dramatic irony implodes the film. There is almost a complete lack of suspense to Deception; what’s more, the film lacks a backstory to sustain our interest. McGregor’s Jonathan never escapes his dull, namby-pamby setup, since Deception requires him to play the easy target until very, very late in the film.

Deception is director Marcel Langenegger’s debut; his next move should be to let someone else choose his material. He was fortunate to land Michelle Williams, who shows signs of becoming a great actress, but I suspect he misled McGregor, who seems too keen, too directed, like he’s in a movie from the silent era. Jackman, a respected stage actor, looks the part of a polished con man, but reveals very little. Despite references to his sexual prowess, he mostly gropes at women impotently, a fitting motif for a film that undresses itself clumsily and can’t manage a proper climax.