Wicker Park (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Unlikely as it seems, Matthew Lillard is the saving grace of Paul McGuigan's wretched remake of L'Appartement.

Wicker Park

Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Diane Kruger, Matthew Lillard, Rose Byrne, Jessica Pare
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: MGM
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-09-03

Unlikely as it seems, Matthew Lillard is the saving grace of Paul McGuigan's wretched remake of Gilles Mimouni's L'Appartement (1996). That's not to say that he wholly rescues the film, only that his scenes are bearable, and on occasion, comically dead-on. Consider one of several moments when the film appears ready to break wide open, as Luke (Lillard), distraught after an evening spent with Alex (Rose Byrne), the highly erratic date he wants so badly to bed, watches her walk away, just after she's rejected him yet again and moans to himself, "This girl is ridiculous!"

She is. And so is the plot surrounding her. On one level, it's standard romantic roundelay: shoe salesman Luke thinks he likes stage actress Alex, but worries about her sanity; she's doting -- unbeknownst to Luke -- on ad exec Matthew (Josh Hartnett), who is in turn engaged to his boss' sister Rebecca (Jessica Paré) and in love with modern dancer Lisa (Diane Kruger, this summer's Helen of Troy).

On another level, Wicker Park looks initially to be a sort of Single White Female Lite, with Alex in the psycho stalker role, maybe. (If Alex's annoying emotional gyrations aren't enough to make you wish you'd made another choice at the multiplex, everyone else's responses to her inanity will seal the deal.) The film's narrative point of departure is a mystery that might be violent: Lisa has disappeared. Matty is introduced as a gloomy sort, lonely even as he sits down to a business meeting with his fiancée and new Chinese clients. As they're planning for a trip to China, he's distracted by a girl whom he thinks is Lisa. When he loses sight of her, he can't stop himself: that night, he pretends to get on the plane to China, but actually heads back into town, where he begins tracking/stalking the girl he thinks might have been Lisa, who conveniently (for the film's protracted running time) remains visible only from behind.

This process raises an array of questions, some relevant to the central plot and some just irritating. Has Lisa returned? If yes, is she purposefully avoiding Matty? Is she being stalked by a crazy rich guy who may or may not have killed his wife? This last is instigated by a funeral scene, followed by Matty's surveillance of the apartment where the-girl-who--might-be-Lisa appears to be living, where the rich widower is also skulking in the hallway, a few steps down from where Matty himself is skulking, in deep shadows no less.

The film is all about such repetitions -- of images, actions, and obsessions, all made visible in many, many mirror images and artfully shifty split screens. And in case the visuals don't make this theme absolutely clear, the movie also includes a pile of metaphorical and structural references -- each character is watching or living voyeuristically through the experiences of another (Luke, for instance, listens enthusiastically to Matty's romantic woes, Alex observes Lisa through her window that happens to be directly across from hers), each has some stake in remaining unseen while watching, whether selfishness or insanity.

Gradually and quite tediously, the movie captivating reveals the details of Matty and Lisa's past (their meeting two years ago, their evolving mutual affection, their afternoons in Wicker Park, her dancing in red dress) through a series of increasingly repetitive flashbacks: he spots her on the street, he follows her, he tells Luke all about it, she comes into Luke's shoe store, Matty sells her a pair of shoes, she agrees to meet him, they deliberate over how committed they want to be, and so on. While it might have been a point of provocative strangeness that Luke works in a shoe store with a red-dragony "Chinese" theme or that Alex is acting in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and so rehearsing lines like "I am not what I am," Wicker Park's kaleidoscopic fragmentations start to look more interesting than any figuring out process.

To this end, intentional or not, Alex's schizzy identity issues dominate the film's fractured point of view. She doesn't even show up until late -- at least not in recognizable form. Prior to the time when she's named (wrongly, at first, and that's a whole other mess of mirrors and reflections), she walks through a couple of scenes, extra-like, bumping into the major players. These encounters set up the film's ostensibly big gotcha, but it's not much of one. Alex isn't scary enough to make you worry for anyone else, and her own obsession is more pitiable than intriguing. And what about that deranged widower, anyway?

Wicker Park does appear to have some interest in the ways that stories become truths or desires drive fictions. But the film's machinations are so transparent, its own deceits so irritating, that the climaxes (and there are a few) aren't profound or even moving. Instead, they are ridiculous.

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