John McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) works overtime. Illuminated by the ghastly lights of an upscale Manhattan office after hours, he first appears in Deception hunched over his laptop and a pile of files and ledgers. When he sees a pair of late-night janitors sneak into the bathroom for a bit of sexual recreation, he’s torn between feeling scandalized and envious. He returns to his work, head bowed.
John is an accountant, more specifically, an audit manager, traveling from office to office in order to check other people’s books, his clients ever worried that he will find something wrong, whether intentional or accidental. Used to playing the numbers police, fond of “order” and “symmetry,” he’s startled this night to be interrupted by the jaunty, designer-suited lawyer Wyatt (Hugh Jackman). Decidedly out of place in this suite of glass-walled offices—so quiet, so still, so confining—Wyatt offers transgression and noise. Before you can say, “Don’t go in there!”, he has engaged John in conversation and pot-smoking, which leads to the inevitable raucous laughter that signals their boy-bonding.
As the film makes too plain, John (bothered by a leaky pipe in his otherwise tidy apartment, pictured as lonely and dweeby in his glasses and look-alike suits), is thrilled to be liked by Wyatt, an apparent cool kid. Invited to play tennis, take vicarious pleasure in Wyatt’s swinging bachelor-style sexcapade stories, and eventually, lunch in the park, John doesn’t notice that Wyatt exchanges cell phones with him, though the film ensures you see it, in one of those Pay Attention! close-ups, in case you’ve drifted off and started making your grocery list in your head. Marcel Langenegger’s first feature relies repeatedly on such awkward devices (including flashbacks to remind you of what you saw just minutes before), even though you’re bound to be long steps ahead of John at every moment.
You will know well before he does, for instance, that Wyatt’s solicitation into a sex club is bad idea. When John gets his first call from an anonymous member who breathes, “Are you free tonight?”, he’s confused and titillated, all teenage-boyish, then meets the woman caller at a fancy hotel and engages in ostensibly remarkable sex. The club membership is comprised of rich heterosexuals, the women showing up in heels and lingerie. John dives right in, visibly giddy to be hooking up with a series of nameless partners, including one played by Natasha Henstridge and another deemed in the credits, “Wall Street Belle,” played by Charlotte Rampling, who instructs him in the etiquette and ethics of the club. When she explains to him that she engages in these one-nights “for the same reasons a man does,” that is, they offer “intimacy without intricacy,” John looks suddenly enlightened, and you feel, again, battered by the movie as blunt object (Rampling’s minuscule role may make you yearn for her excellent complexities in The Night Porter, Under the Sand, and Heading South; sheesh, even Orca looks like trenchant social commentary compared to Deception).
As he starts to feel comfortable with the “rules,” John hears from Wyatt only intermittently, as he is supposedly off on a business trip in London. And then John finds a reason to break the rules, in the partner he only knows as “S” (Michelle Williams). He decides he doesn’t want to have sex with her, but instead, have a conversation and even a room service meal. Their evening is rendered in predictable images: they smile, they flirt, he guesses at her name (“I’m very good at this,” John insists, so generically, “Problem-solving”). They agree to see one another again, and yes, John is stepping into an intrigue he doesn’t see coming.
The problem is, you see all of it coming, again and again. And so Deception is less a thriller than it is a contest between boys with big egos, assorted women dropped in as pseudo-exotic objects of exchange. The most visible wrench in the masculine contest is one Detective Russo (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who shows up late and offers a refreshing alternative, with her black leather jacket and skeptical expression. Apprised by John that some inexplicable and ugly-seeming violence has occurred, Russo doubts his story, based on lack of evidence (no victim, as much as he insists). She wonders aloud about his sanity and stability, articulating the film’s problem outright: “Have you had other experiences like this before?” Though he denies it, asserting that his version of events is correct because its’ his, you realize as Russo speaks that none of this is his, that he is slipping deeper and deeper into a dreary hole of a plot that only makes him increasingly prosaic.
Russo fulfills her own sort of standard role within this movie’s formula: she suspects John, and so puts him under increasing pressure, with cuts to her ongoing investigation, conducted from her drab office with assistants barking new info at her, suggesting her Admirable Doggedness. But still, she’s bored with the story John tells her as soon as she hears it. And so, you feel instantly aligned with her, again, long steps ahead of all the dick-swinging shenanigans.