I am about to recommend a movie in which three of the four leads are terrible -- or at the very least meager talents terribly miscast.
It's a brilliantly twisty, multiple-point-of-view romantic thriller entitled "Wicker Park," starring furrow-browed but otherwise expressionless Josh Hartnett ("Pearl Harbor") as Matthew, an uneasy young turk in Chicago's advertising world who abandons a career-making, deal-sealing trip to China so he can chase a ghost, the fleeting glimpse of a girl in a restaurant -- the love of his life who vanished without a trace two years before.
Angularly pretty Diane Kruger -- the entirely underwhelming Helen of this summer's "Troy" -- is said girl, whom we meet in several fantastically structured flashbacks that come as jolts of memory at pivotal moments and fill in the histories of various characters, begetting startling plot developments in the process.
Rounding out the lackluster trio is goofy doofus Matthew Lillard -- who makes a great Shaggy in "Scooby Doo" but can't seem to cope with drama -- as Hartnett's semi-slacker best friend, the snake-charming sales king of a funky women's shoe store who is a piece in a deceptively elaborate puzzle masterfully snapped together, scene by unpredictable scene.
Directed by Paul McGuigan, who made 2002's similarly intricate and inventive "Gangster No. 1," this remake of the French film "L'Appartement" (unreleased in the U.S.) turns on a curious case of mistaken identity in which our hero follows a string of disquieting clues, breaks into an apartment thinking he'll find Lisa (Kruger) and is startled to find another girl with the same name and unnervingly similar taste in fashion, decorating and perfume.
This Lisa, who quickly turns from terrified to strangely clingy, even inviting her intruder to spend the night, is played by vulnerably heart-faced Rose Byrne, who made a more lasting impression in "Troy" as kidnapped princess Briseis. She becomes the lynchpin of this film's plot in ways that provide many bewildering yet surprisingly simple revelations.
McGuigan imbues "Wicker Park" with a disorienting atmosphere and visual style, using available windowpanes and deep focus techniques like a split-screen effect to show simultaneous actions and emotions upon which the narrative twists and turns. He gladly lets the viewer jump to the wrong conclusion (being the type who tries to outsmart such thrillers, I made several incorrect assumptions), and even implies at times that Lisa's disappearance may have more to do with Matthew's perception than with any real mystery. It's because of his strong direction that "Wicker Park" overcomes its bad casting and often lifeless incidental dialogue.
So how did McGuigan get saddled with such empty vessel actors? Since himbos Paul Walker and Freddie Prinze, Jr. were also considered for Hartnett's role, I'd like to blame teen-market-minded studio honchos. But McGuigan is working with Hartnett again on his next film, so I have no answer. All I can say is that somebody didn't aim high enough. The material deserved better.
"Wicker Park" has a few other problems, most notably the fact that no one from Matthew's office ever checks in with him to find out why the heck he never showed up in China. And even the one good performance has its low points -- Byrne's weirdly insecure character is an actress, who gets a standing ovation for a spectacularly bad performance in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
But even its loopholes are not always what they seem. Most of them close up quite nicely upon closer examination of the film's manifold manifestations. And it is such keen and cunning storytelling that makes it possible to see "Wicker Park" for its strengths despite its tremendous weaknesses.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Friday 3rd September 2004
Box Office USA: $12.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $13M
Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Production compaines: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Lakeshore Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 25%
Fresh: 34 Rotten: 100
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Paul McGuigan
Starring: Josh Hartnett as Matthew, Rose Byrne as Alex, Matthew Lillard as Luke, Diane Kruger as Lisa, Christopher Cousins as Daniel, Jessica Paré as Rebecca, Vlasta Vrána as Jeweller, Amy Sobol as Ellie, Ted Whittall as Walter
Also starring: Jessica Pare