Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Wicker Park'

Tribune Movie Critic

2 stars (out of 4)

Even if you haven't been to Chicago's tony Wicker Park lately, you'll probably be disoriented by the new film that bears its name. And not always pleasantly so.

Starring an attractive young foursome--Josh Hartnett, Diane Kruger, Matthew Lillard and Rose Byrne--as an obsessive, mixed-up romantic quadrangle, "Wicker Park" is an improbable but sometimes barmily entertaining erotic thriller about people so much in love they act as if don't care what they do and don't know where they are.

The movie isn't built around violence or the threat of violence like most thrillers. But watching it makes you feel queasy. Director Paul McGuigan ("The Reckoning") strives for a Hitchcockian lucid-nightmare effect, with material that seems closer to Hitch's French disciple Francois Truffaut.

Even so, almost nothing in the plot stands up to scrutiny. That romantic confusion almost fits the movie: an adaptation of a French screenplay (for Gilles Mimouni's 1996 "L'Appartement") originally set in Paris, but relocated to Chicago and actually shot in Montreal with a mixed American-Australian-German cast, by a Scottish director (McGuigan) with a Hollywood screenwriter (Brandon Boyce of "Apt Pupil").

In the midst of this international mish-mash, Hartnett, looking like a tormented Calvin Klein model, plays Matthew, a rising young yuppie returning to Chicago briefly, two years after resettling in New York City. Now engaged to his boss' bossy sister Rebecca (Jessica Pare), he's on his way to business meetings in China. But he seems edgy and there's a reason. His life came apart in Wicker Park two years ago, when he fled Chicago after his adored and seemingly adoring girlfriend Lisa (Kruger) left for London without a word.

Suddenly, on his way to the restaurant, Matthew bumps into his genial onetime best friend Luke (Lillard) on the street. Then, in the restaurant, he thinks he sees and hears Lisa talking on the phone.

Immediately, his old obsession returns. He lies to Rebecca about his China flight and instead stays in Chicago and tries to reconnect with Lisa. This leads to an amazing string of troubles, especially after he borrows Luke's car, tries to rendezvous with Lisa at The Drake Hotel and later at what he thinks is her address. There, he discovers another woman (Byrne) who claims her name is Lisa and who demonstrates sudden fear and then sudden lust.

The rest of "Wicker Park's" surprises are best left unexposed, since unexpected and improbable plot twists are most of what the story has to offer. The movie's raison d'etre, beyond displaying its photogenic cast, is the setting of one elaborate narrative trap after another--with the mysteries gradually disclosed by an intricate set of flashbacks which keep reconfiguring the story and the relationships.

McGuigan knows how to hold our attention and Hartnett, with his anguished pretty-boy face, is not a bad choice for the protagonist--played in the original film by Vincent Cassell. Byrne is amusingly pathological and Kruger striking as the false and real Lisas, played in "L'Appartement" by Romane Bohringer and Monica Bellucci. (I haven't seen that French version, but it boasts such strong actors, one wishes it were more available here). Byrne tends to steal the show, but Lillard, as loosey-goosey Luke, pilfers a bit too. With a crookedly grinning face and bent attitude that suggests a weird mix of James Spader and Michael Keaton, he gives the movie a healthy shot of humor and flaky realism.

But, though I like internationalism in movies, shooting a film called "Wicker Park" in Montreal is a cinematic sin to start out with, unless you're trying for total fantasy. The sets standing in for the park and other local locations don't suggest a real Chicago and it doesn't help that the movie is based on themes of deception and illusion, with characters so mad with love, they're almost dislocated from their surroundings.

What would we have thought about the original "Appartement," a film praised for its romantic vision of Paris, if Mimouni had shot it in Amsterdam or Prague, with a mockup of the Latin Quarter and background slides of the Louvre? Dramatic movies these days depend so much on real-life atmosphere and locations that it seems absurd to keep turning Montreal and Toronto into the modern equivalent of Hollywood back lots--especially for a movie like "Wicker Park."

That's not the movie's biggest problem, however. To work, it has to make us feel crazy with love, like "Vertigo" did. Instead, it often just makes us feel crazy for believing any of it.

"Wicker Park"

Directed by Paul McGuigan; written by Brandon Boyce, based on the screenplay by Gilles Mimouni for the film "L'Appartement"; photographed by Peter Sova; edited by Andrew Hulme; production designed by Richard Bridgland; music by Cliff Martinez; produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Andre Lamal, Marcus Viscidi. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:55. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexuality and language).

Matthew - Josh Hartnett
Alex - Rose Byrne
Luke - Matthew Lillard
Lisa - Diane Kruger
Daniel - Christopher Cousins
Rebecca - Jessica Pare

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