‘Deception’s’ hook? Jackman’s clout

Times Staff Writer

The basic message of “Deception” is that all that ultimately matters is a trustworthy relationship. That’s the main reason, too, why the blackmail thriller, in theaters Friday, landed on 20th Century Fox’s release schedule.

Fox has a well-deserved reputation for narrowly focusing on easy-to-market movies with a clearly defined audience and built-in sales hooks: “Horton Hears a Who,” “The Fantastic Four,” “Live Free or Die Hard.” Which makes Fox’s involvement in “Deception” -- an R-rated, sex-filled adult drama whose biggest role is played by Ewan McGregor -- so out of character.

But “Deception” is produced by and costars Hugh Jackman, and when it comes to important Aussies on the Fox lot, Rupert Murdoch and Jackman run a close one-two. Jackman not only starred in Fox’s three “X-Men” blockbusters, but also stands at the center of next summer’s spinoff “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (he’s producing and starring). Later this year, Jackman plays opposite Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann’s cattle-drive epic “Australia,” which Fox believes has Oscar potential, and could earn the kind of award attention lavished on Fox Searchlight but rarely seen at the main studio.


So if Fox scratches Jackman’s back by distributing “Deception,” it’s only fair: He’s made the studio a windfall and classes up the joint. And Fox is hardly the first studio to support an actor’s or a producer’s passion project -- it’s as enduring a show-business tradition as screaming at assistants.

Audience tracking surveys show “Deception” is headed for a devastating debut in wide release of about 2,000 screens this weekend, and may just barely crack the Top 10. The real drama will be which new film wins bragging rights for the No. 1 spot: the surrogate mother comedy “Baby Mama” or the silly slacker movie “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.” Both movies could gross around $16 million in their debuts, but we’re giving the narrow edge to Universal’s “Baby Mama.”

“Deception,” on the other hand, may take in as little as $5 million this weekend. Given the film’s subject matter and marketing challenges, it’s not a surprising outcome. The film stars Jackman as Wyatt Bose, a too-convivial-to-be-true lawyer, who befriends inhibited (is there any other kind?) accountant Jonathan McQuarry (McGregor). By accident or design, McQuarry and Bose end up with each other’s mobile phones. McQuarry soon starts accepting phoned invitations to sexual liaisons apparently intended for Bose.

The sex club’s women are beautiful, willing and, unlike Eliot Spitzer’s high-priced acquaintances, don’t charge a penny. One of McQuarry’s companions, known only as “S” (Michelle Williams), is a little more alluring than the others, and before long McQuarry wants to break the club’s rules about anonymity and friendship. But since the movie is called “Deception” (earlier titles included “The List” and “The Tourist”), “S” and Bose aren’t quite all they seem.

Some six years in the making and shot more than a year ago, “Deception” was once in development at Fox, which ultimately declined to underwrite its under-$25 million price tag. Producer Arnold Rifkin and Jackman’s Seed Productions, which makes its debut on the film, were able to secure backing from independent financiers Media Rights Capital and Summit Entertainment, which sold foreign rights.

Fox initially was going to distribute “Deception” only in Australia but agreed to release the film in North America after Jackman’s representatives called the studio, according to people familiar with the deal. With a minimum guarantee of close to $10 million and limited advertising, Fox could break even if “Deception” does a couple of weeks of middling business in theaters and performs well enough on DVD and pay television, these people say. (Six years ago, the studio released to modest success the adultery drama “Unfaithful,” but it had Richard Gere, not McGregor, in the lead role, and “Fatal Attraction” director Adrian Lyne, not “Deception’s” first-timer Marcel Langenegger, behind the cameras.)

“Deception’s” reviews are not likely to be strong, and female moviegoers have not embraced the sex club story line, according to someone familiar with the film’s marketing. Williams, the film’s best publicity hook for attracting women, isn’t doing media interviews because of the recent death of her former boyfriend, actor Heath Ledger.

Even if it doesn’t make much (if anything) on the film, Fox’s bond with Jackman and “Deception” is not unusual. Studio executives frequently take special care of their top talent, often taking on movies their inner bean counters realize are risky business.

Paramount likely would not have made the “Abre Los Ojos” remake “Vanilla Sky” with Tom Cruise had not its “Mission: Impossible” star insisted upon it. Having made a fortune on Tom Shadyac’s comedies (“Liar Liar,” “Patch Adams”), Universal let him direct the drama “Dragonfly.” Jerry Bruckheimer has sold hundreds of millions of tickets for Walt Disney Co., which helps explain why the studio agreed to “Veronica Guerin,” a Bruckheimer-produced drama about a murdered Irish journalist.

Everyone says Hollywood is built on relationships, but “Deception” proves that it’s not just empty talk.