Rick (2003)

2004-09-24 (Limited release)

The evils of the corporate world are a worthy, if familiar subject in recent cinema, but the icy Rick struggles to level an original, thought-provoking commentary, despite having a capable cast and compelling source material. Inspired by Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto and adapted by Lemony Snicket’s alter ego Daniel Handler, Rick stars Bill Pullman as the tightly wound Rick O’Lett, an executive at Image, a company whose name and motto (“We can do this”) reveal the film’s smug, unimaginative take on its vital subject matter.

Theoretically, an adaptation of Rigoletto should be effective as a satire of corporate culture; after all, Verdi’s opera (itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse) was designed to inspire revolutionary feelings by exposing moral corruption in the Italian court. But the transposition of these critiques to a contemporary context feels a few days late and several dollars short in Rick. Seventeen years after Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, suggesting that capitalism is corrosive to the soul is old hat. And Neil LaBute’s 1997 film In the Company of Men, runs circles around Rick‘s rather facile take on gender politics in the workplace.

A longtime company man, Rick finds himself the underling of the precocious Duke (Aaron Stanford), and obnoxious punk young enough to be his son. Before we can develop any empathy for Rick’s predicament, he is fielding his first appointment of the day, a job interview with Michelle (Sandra Oh). He quickly dismantles her, repeatedly calling her by the wrong name and ethnic group, eviscerating her Ivy League resume, even mocking her stunned, stunted protestations of his unwarranted barrage.

Later, as he relives his hatchet job over obligatory drinks with Duke, their waitress is none other than Michelle, who attempts to regain her self-respect by refusing to serve them. When her manager hears this, he promptly fires her. Michelle does get off a parting shot at Rick however, calling him “an evil man with an evil soul,” and promising him Karmic retribution for his misdeeds. The curse haunts Rick, as if he believes its veracity deep down but can or will do nothing about it.

Handler and director Curtiss Clayton (editor for several films by Gus Van Sant, in his directorial debut) overstate what we already know: it’s a white man’s world, and white men are a loathsome, paranoid, pack-oriented lot, exacting the toll of their corporate-driven lives on any and every woman they can find. This is hardly a revelation, and while problems around race and gender persist in corporate America, the caricaturing of such problems, while establishing the wickedness of villains and the innocence of victims also makes a cartoon out of behaviors and cultures it purports to criticize — a far cry from the revolutionary underpinnings of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Rick’s only approximate ally in life appears to be his 17-year-old daughter Eve (Agnes Bruckner). Not a girl, but not yet a woman, Eve is Rick’s only remaining link to the man he was before the death of his wife, whom both he and Eve clearly miss but rarely discuss. In fact, their relationship is marked by sarcastic exchanges and an odd kind of shamelessness around the subject of her sexuality. When over the phone Rick asks what she’s up to, Eve coolly announces she’s having sex with a girlfriend, to which he responds, “That’s good, just don’t join the army.”

Eve gets her kicks in an online sex chat room as Vixxxen; here she has an ongoing virtual tryst with the far more serious BigBoss, who is none other than Duke. Identities are revealed piecemeal and confused to some extent, but Rick learns enough about the online encounters that he contacts a mysterious acquaintance named Buck (Dylan Baker), whose company arranges corporate assassinations. Revenge against Duke is his aim, but Rick is a cursed man, and his actions set tragic wheels in motion.

Verdi’s opera hinges on confusion over the identity of the daughter (named Gilda in the original). Rigoletto concealed Gilda’s existence from the court and when they appeared together in public, she was mistaken for his mistress. In Rick, the same misunderstanding is key, but given the ambivalence Rick displays towards Eve’s sexuality, it only further confuses the film’s commentary on gender relations. As they prepare for a dinner (at a restaurant named Verdi’s, of course), Eve is underdressed for her father’s taste, but he is less concerned for her than for himself, fearing people will believe he is dating a supermodel. It’s difficult to imagine any father of a teenage daughter allowing such a confusion to linger, even in a world as twisted as this. Casting Rick in the harsh light of his own narcissism does have its merits, but his attitude toward Eve also charges her sexuality in a way that’s downright creepy.

Part of the problem lies with the casting. Pullman is largely effective as Rick, but despite his snarls and sneers, the actor has a hard time looking old enough. Like a nasty version of Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards, Rick has been around the block a couple of times, but still looks a bit like a kid. Conversely, Bruckner, who was so good in 2003’s Blue Car, is too sharp for what seems a dimwitted character.

With its faerie tale musical score and absurd characterizations, this film will appeal to hardcore Lemony Snicket fans, but as corporate satire, Rick is underwhelming. In an environment that makes Roman spectacle out of corporate shenanigans (NBC’s Trumptacular The Apprentice, among others), a more pointed challenge might indict not just capitalism or corporate culture, but consumers’ ambivalence on the subject as well. While Wal-Marts spring up like poisoned mushrooms and those remaining in the middle class curse their portfolio managers, Rick thrusts wildly at only the most obvious dragons.