ReelThoughts: September 17, 2009

"TIFF #8: Deceptions"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Curious random thought: Having spent some time staring at the huge screens in the (relatively) new Scotiabank and AMC theaters, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that they are as large (or larger) than the screen in the supposed "IMAX" theater in my local multiplex. Talk about highlighting how cheap the faux IMAX experience is. The problem is, of course, that most multiplex screens are nowhere near as large as those in these two Toronto theaters, so of course it's impressive to sit in a mini-IMAX theater. Considering the postage stamp-size screens in many multiplex auditoriums, how could it fail to be? I think this says more about theater quality in general than it does about the IMAX name being whored out for money. Anyway, back to the festival...

We all know the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses," and so does first time writer/director Darrick Borte, who has used that as the basis for his debut, called (appropriately enough) The Joneses. The subject matter is simple enough: Borte has elected to highlight modern society's materialistic and status obsessions while at the same time postulating how out-of-control marketing campaigns have become. However, despite a brilliantly cynical premise and a delicious start, the film eventually wilts like a lily left out in the noonday heat. A desire to be likeable and perhaps appealing to mainstream audiences causes The Joneses to fade before eventually imploding. The biggest gaffe: a sermon delivered by David Duchovny. The problem isn't so much that he's not a good preacher but that the message would be better left unsaid. Is Brote so uncertain of his skill that he has to spell out everything? Whatever happened to subtlety?

At first glance, the Joneses appear to be a perfect family: father Steve (David Duchovny), mother Kate (Demi Moore), son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), and daughter Jenn (Amber Heard). But since this is a movie, there's no such thing as a "perfect family" and, despite the beautiful house, the expensive furniture, and the luxury cars, there are issues in this paradise, as becomes apparent when Jenn tries to slip into Dad's bed one night. It turns out these four are actually employees of a corporation called LifeImage and have been seeded into this neighborhood to show off the good life to their neighbors and get them to buy the products LifeImage represents. The couple next door, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly), fall for it hook, line, and sinker - but there's an issue. Larry doesn't make enough money to finance all the purchases and he soon finds himself drowning in debt.

I'm a little uneasy about the film's message regarding corporate amorality and greed. It's not that I don't think corporations sometimes cross lines in their marketing campaigns, but personal responsibility has to come into it, and that's not something the film addresses. According to The Joneses, when people get in over their head in debt, it's because of a company's selling practices, not because of a lack of self-control on the part of the people who should be watching their bottom line. Credit card debt is out of control in many cases because people can't live within their means. These aren't high school students caving in to peer pressure. Yes, the issue of "keeping up with the Joneses" is a problem in modern day America, but to put all the blame on the people marketing and selling the products is to overlook a major part of the issue.

That being said, the manner in which the film begins and the way it gradually reveals the truth about its protagonists is smart and savvy, and the satire of marketing is on-target more often than not. What's being postulated by this film isn't far from reality. Is it that much different to use product placement in movies and television shows than it is to use a real-life version of the same thing? (In what I assume is an example of in-your-face irony, Borte uses a fair share of such placements in this movie, the most obvious of which is for a car I won't name here.)

Solid performances from Duchovny, Moore, Hollingsworth, and Heard can't save the movie when the screenplay goes as limp as a noodle and turns into a long string of clichés. It's sad, really, because the movie begins with so much promise. It has its share of amusing moments but, in the end, The Joneses feels like a satire that never blossoms because of a fear of becoming too dark. It's a missed opportunity - a problem with too many pictures at this year's festival. (In fact, one could make a similar statement about the next production.)

Deception lies at the core of Atom Egoyan's latest, Chloe. Egoyan is often referred to as "Toronto's Native Son," so it's a cause for concern when he premieres a new film at the festival and it's not given either the Opening Night or Closing Night slot. That's the case with Chloe, which is stuck somewhere in the middle as a generic "Gala." This is also the movie Liam Neeson was making at the time of his wife's death. And, while Neeson reportedly returned at a later date to film a few "critical" scenes, it is unclear whether any part of the screenplay had to be altered to accommodate his limited availability. My fingers are crossed that this was the case because if it wasn't and this represents Egoyan's unfettered vision, he continues his slide down into the valley of mediocrity.

Chloe is a remake of the French film Nathalie and, for about the first 2/3, remains faithful to the spirit, if not necessarily the particulars, of its inspiration. Then, for reasons known only to the filmmakers, it metamorphoses into a Canadian lesbian version of Fatal Attraction. Far be it from me to complain about a surprisingly explicit sex scene between Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried, but what the hell...? What was Egoyan thinking? (Out of context, I loved the scene. It is tremendously erotic.)

Liam Neeson plays David, a well-liked professor. He is married to Catherine (Moore), an upscale Toronto gynecologist. David enjoys harmless flirting and being open to his (female) students, and this has created feelings of jealousy for Catherine. Eventually, convinced by circumstantial evidence of his infidelity, she decides to get proof. For that, she hires call girl Chloe (Seyfried). Catherine wants Chloe to seduce David then report back to her with a detailed description of everything that occurs. And it doesn't stop after just one "date."

Nathalie used this premise as a launching point for a talky exploration of marriage and fidelity. Chloe is more of a character study, at least until it goes off the deep end. David is the poised, confident individual in the triangle; Catherine is insecure; and Chloe is an enigma - she's not even sure who she actually is. By her own admission, she is transformed into men's fantasies then disappears when she's no longer needed. In the finished film, David is more of a prop than an actual character. Chloe focuses on Catherine and Chloe and the relationship that develops between them. There is little or no sexual chemistry between Seyfried and Neeson, since most of their interaction occurs off-screen. But there's plenty between Seyfried and Moore, all of which bubbles over in the aforementioned lesbian sex scene. Egoyan has directed plenty of nudity in the past, but that may be the hottest thing he has ever done, trumping the strip club sequences in Exotica.

This movie feels like what one might anticipate if Hollywood got its hands on Nathalie. Too talky? Cut down on the dialogue. Not enough action? Add lots of sex and nudity. (Although, to be fair, Emmanuelle Beart was naked in the original.) A cerebral and ambiguous ending? Borrow from Fatal Attraction. Watching Chloe implode was perhaps the saddest moment of the festival for me, and it certainly represents the deepest disappointment. That's in part because I keep hoping for Egoyan to return to the form he showed in the '90s with Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, in part because I like all the actors involved in this project, and in part because I have always been intrigued by the ideas chewed over in Nathalie.

Chloe exists in a twilight realm. It's probably too "arty" to work on a purely exploitative level (hints of the Fatal Attraction approach don't appear until about 75 minutes into the film), and the dumbed-down ending will keep it from being embraced by the art film crowd. It's actually enjoyable level given reasonable expectations: the performances are uniformly good, the cinematography is evocative, there's plenty of steamy action, and (despite some watering down by screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson) some interesting issues are broached.

A short scene from Chloe:


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