The digital revolution continues to inspire variations on the themes of institutional surveillance and diminishing privacy. But while The Matrix, The Net or Enemy of the State might recall, however imperfectly, the heyday of ’70s paranoid thrillers — films made by Alan J. Pakula, Francis Ford Coppola or Sydney Pollack — the new movie, Paranoia, does so only in its title.
The kind of corporate-espionage claptrap that used to star kids from the WB, Paranoia instead Liam Hemsworth, younger brother of Thor‘s Chris Hemsworth and supporting player in the Hunger Games series. His frequently shirtless computer genius Adam Cassidy has been toiling away at a massive tech company run by Nicolas Wyatt (Gary Oldman) for six years, still toiling at an entry-level salary. The movie opens with Adam and his team preparing to pitch a new product to Wyatt, and with Adam hoping that he’ll get rich enough to pay medical bills for his ailing father (Richard Dreyfuss).
But the team’s proposal does not impress Wyatt… or does it? After watching the whole movie, I’m still not sure. Wyatt fires them all, but after Adam recklessly spends company money on a night out, he’s called back to the office. Wyatt has decided he’s the man for a secret mission, specifically, to infiltrate another tech company, owned by Wyatt’s old mentor Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford), and find out what they’ve got up their sleeves. (At this point, Wyatt mentions that he liked Adam’s pitch, which renders the entire opening section of the movie far more confusing than necessary.)
For training, Adam is sent off to Wyatt’s compound, where he undergoes a strict regimen of showers, brief discussions, and symbolic chess games, after which he behaves exactly the same way he did at the beginning of the movie, but in a slightly nicer suit. Hemsworth has a commanding, low-ish voice, and he’s gotten better at burying his Australian accent since romancing Miley Cyrus in The Last Song (2010). But he’s still not a convincing foundation for a movie, at least not a movie this flimsy. When Adam enters the rival tech company as a hotshot exec, he telegraphs his amateurish awe by repeatedly gazing upward, even though he just spent six years working in a similar high-tech facility. In other words, Wyatt has a terrible eye for spies.
Still, Adam is relatively more convincing as a spy than as the edgy outsider that he’s supposed to be. Hemsworth looks and acts like a clean-cut, mom-appropriate frat boy, from Brooklyn, home to countless hot restaurants and luxury condos, which the movie positions as an outsider’s borough. Paranoia misunderstands class, both as reason for striving and a means to mark character. Neither Adam nor the movie ever realizes that his sick father could probably sell his Brooklyn house and live off the proceeds for years. For a little while, these ludicrous touches make Paranoia compelling by its sheer stupidity, usually at the expense of Adam seeming like a competent hero; he all but requires that other characters explain to him exactly why he should be paranoid, which sucks the thrills right out of a paranoid thriller.
Equally ludicrous is his nonsensically deceptive relationship with Emma (Amber Heard), the head of marketing at his new company. When they meet early in the film, she expresses disdain for Adam before deciding, off-camera and over the course of about 20 minutes, that she likes him after all. Heard does better playing moxie-heavy tough girls as opposed to loyal, worried girlfriends, so to see Emma mysteriously defanged so early on is deflating. She’s a victim of the movie’s vision of male-female relationships; the strange Adam-Emma courtship is mirrored by Adam’s Kevin (Lucas Till), nerdy best friend. Kevin’s crush object rolls her eyes at him repeatedly, then agrees to sleep with him and follows him around faithfully.
These regressions may be the remnants of director Robert Luketic’s previous work on Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! Since then, he’s branched out to Paranoia and 21. But apart from a few tech-y flourishes like the addition of digital-noise effects to brief chase sequences, Luketic directs his thrillers almost exactly as he did the brightly colored romantic comedies, minus the jokes. Instead of developing atmosphere or a credible world, he pays maximum attention to cartoonish individuals’ attractiveness, likability, and forced camaraderie. Both Paranoia and 21 pad their casts with several superfluous friend-of-hero characters who aren’t charming or funny enough to qualify as comic relief.
Just as 21 got some juice from Kevin Spacey as a scenery-chewing mentor, Paranoia makes use of its older movie stars cast in antagonistic roles. Ford and Oldman are fun to watch in their inevitable face-off, growling and barking. But the scene comes long after Paranoia has fallen flat as a thriller, and even after its pleasures as a stupid movie about utterly unbelievable rich people have dried up.