Demonstrating that his unique creativity as a writer extends beyond darkly humorous kids' books, in "Rick," Daniel Handler of "Lemony Snicket" fame delves into something more dastardly and grown-up -- an extremely dark comedy adapted from Giuseppe Verdi's tragic opera "Rigoletto" and set in an almost surreal, cut-throat corporate world.
Bill Pullman, who always makes interesting choices when he makes independent films, stars as Rick O'Lette, an aging, career-stalled middle manager who "used to be a nice guy." Now a callous, seething sycophant -- whose own brashness is subservient to a cocky, serpentine young-gun executive (succulently sleazy Aaron Stanford) -- Rick is lured into a murder plot, designed to clear his path to a corner office. A mysteriously au fait old college classmate (charming, matter-of-factly malevolent Dylan Baker) approaches him in some tecnho-Orwellian bar and hints that he makes a seemingly respectable living (with business cards and everything) in the snuff trade and takes advantage of Rick's animosity and ambition.
Director Curtiss Clayton (an acclaimed editor making his helming debut) puts the weight of this strange world on Rick's shoulders, with the mahogany walls of his baroque office closing in on him, and long-dead bigwigs glaring down from musty oil paintings which now hang over desk cubicles and flat-screen computers. And yet Clayton has an ironically light touch with Handler's very black wit, giving the film an alluring pitch of unsettling laughs throughout the ill-fated events that soon unfold.
Both writer and director show strokes of genius in the way they modernize certain story elements, as when a job applicant Rick has offhandedly abused (Sandra Oh) in an early scene puts an unnerving curse on him before bolting from his office, almost in tears. She has no mystical abilities -- it's just a way of taking out her frustration for the cruelty -- and Rick tries laughs it off, but the insinuation of hoodoo gets under his skin all the same.
But a few entirely avoidable contrivances keep "Rick" from becoming the masterful adaptation it might have been. One involves Rick's wily, intelligent teenage daughter (Agnes Bruckner), who becomes sexually involved with Daddy's boss by means that lack credibility. The other involves the dubious laxity of a hit man's methods and the fact that Clayton d-r-a-g-s out the obvious lead-up to their consequences.
But the film's imaginative visual style, its atmosphere thick with surreptitious menace, and the performances -- all of which balance on the edge of oddly twinkly darkness -- more than make up for the picture's few shortcomings. This is especially true of Pullman and the way he lets slip touches of fear and insecurity floating beneath Rick's superficially slick exterior.
A bold adaptation of a classic morality tale ("Rigoletto" takes place in 16th Century Mantua and its title character is a Duke's hunchback court jester), "Rick" manages to be both disquieting and entertaining -- and that's quite a cunning feat of cinema.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 29th April 2004
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Curtiss Clayton
Starring: Bill Pullman as Rick O'Lette, Aaron Stanford as Duke, Agnes Bruckner as Eve O'Lette, Sandra Oh as Michelle, Dylan Baker as Buck, Emmanuelle Chriqui as Duke's Long-Suffering Wife, Marianne Hagan as Laura