Twists, ham fists and a near-tryst crash in ‘Derailed’

Times Staff Writer

“Derailed” is a silly, lurid, pulpy thriller that’s not nearly lurid and pulpy enough to be much fun, but more than silly enough to be ludicrous. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom from a vaguely familiar screenplay by Stuart Beattie, it ushers in every twist and turn with gong-banging foreboding, as though each next big reveal were paying a formal visit to the Addams family.

The movie, the first to be released by the post-Miramax Weinstein Co., stars Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston as a couple of married executives (he’s in advertising, she’s a financial advisor) who meet on their morning commute, exchange a few anomic, Cheeverish pleasantries and embark on an accelerated flirtation that culminates in attempted infidelity. Their tryst is thwarted when a French-accented thug breaks into their room in a fleabag hotel and enacts, with theatrical relish, the worst nightmare of guilt-ridden, well-heeled adulterers everywhere.

Rather than nail its characters to the bed they’ve made, “Derailed” spins off into nefarious mastermind territory, all the while slogging through a predictable rehash of the cinematic dangers of cheating on your wife -- especially if you happen to be an upper-middle-class executive, your wife a gorgeous blond schoolteacher and your daughter a vulnerable, sickly waif whose fourth kidney transplant you’ve scrimped and saved for. A story as tabloid-pungent as this requires actors willing to ham it up Adrian Lyne-style -- to lunge, bellow, toss their manes in anguish, bolt upright in the tub gripping a butcher knife at a jaunty Norman Bates angle. And actors as appealing and attractive as Owen and Aniston deserve a story in which they’re allowed to explore emotions other than hangdog guilt and grim restraint.

What the material doesn’t call for is measured pacing and a straight face, which only serve to highlight the utilitarian feel of much of the dialogue and several of the characters. When Charles Schine (Owen) informs his wife that there’s been a sudden change in their financial picture, for instance, she hits on the idea of selling the house. “We already have two mortgages on the house,” Charles replies patiently, as though initiating a child in the mysteries of household finances. “Selling it wouldn’t do us any good.” This is not so much dialogue as underlining. Observant viewers, or even just viewers who have been around the block a few times, will recognize Charles’ oddly intimate friendship with the office mail clerk, Winston (RZA), as imminent plot point fodder. You just never know when a friendly connection to an ex-con from the ‘hood may come in handy.


If Hafstrom has accomplished the difficult task of making Owen seem ineffectual and lumpish and Aniston sharp and grim, he’s made Vincent Cassel’s slick, versatile, multilingual arch-villain LaRoche improbably florid and cartoonish. In one scene, LaRoche delivers violent, dirty threats in mellifluous French, charming his hapless American victims, with their sadly short-sighted disdain for foreign language education, into thinking he’s making nice when in fact he’s describing some nasty things he’d like to do to daddy.

An odd cultural tone-deafness pervades the movie, giving it the feeling of a standard Hollywood thriller that’s been retranslated from a translation. The result is a not uninteresting, if probably unintentional, reflection on the accumulation of mindless junk clogging the cultural landfill. Not to dwell, but the whole thing feels a little Swedish. How else to explain a couple of Chicago executives happening upon a $49-a-night hostel just off Michigan Avenue? Or the scene in which Charles bumps into LaRoche’s sidekick Dexter (Xzibit) on the street and apologizes, and Dexter replies, “Sorry don’t pay the bills or stop world wars or feed the poor”? Or the one with the cops who come across Charles sheepishly lurking by his parked car in a dark alley, his companion slumped over the wheel of the car, and decide to challenge his manhood for not picking up their prostitute friend instead of checking out the vehicle? Or the fact that the man who appears to be Chicago’s lone homicide detective (Giancarlo Esposito) dresses like Willie Brown and orders drinks like Sam Spade. “Scotch, drop the rocks,” he tells the bartender. “Sure, buddy,” you wish the bartender would say, “as soon as you drop the pose.” “Derailed” seems to want badly to be described as contemporary noir. But it’s just pitch-dumb.




MPAA rating: R for language, sexuality

Times guidelines: Contains scenes of violence and sexuality, including a rape scene

A presentation of the Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom. Screenplay by Stuart Beattie. Based on the novel by James Siegel. Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Director of photography Peter Biziou. Editor Peter Boyle. Music by Edward Shearmur. Running time: 1 hour, 50 min. In general release.