If the title Deception sounds painfully generic, perhaps that’s because it was the name of a Bette Davis vehicle in 1946, and a German arthouse film in 1975. More to the point, there’s virtually no film noir that’s not about deception in one form or another. But few of them telegraph their twists and turns more obviously than this glossy, would-be “erotic thriller,” starring two fine British Commonwealth actors who do their best to sound American and end up giving performances as searingly memorable as Clive Owen in Derailed or Angelina Jolie in Taking Lives. (Not remembering those movies? You’re in good company.) There’s nothing like a bad script to turn a charismatic performer into a wallflower.
In Deception, the only wallflower is supposed be Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor), a mild-mannered accountant whose firm sends him to high-rent corporate headquarters to perform audits. Jonathan is so naïve that when his sharp-dressing new lawyer friend Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) sees him checking out girls and says, “You don’t get much, do you?” he replies, “You mean sex?”
Within an hour of meeting Wyatt, Jonathan conveniently spills his backstory, making it clear he’s the easiest mark in the history of crime cinema. After Jackman “accidentally” switches his cellphone with McGregor’s, the accountant starts receiving sultry nocturnal invites from female members of an elite, movers-and-shakers-only sex club. Scared but titillated, he meets the women at swanky hotels for anonymous interludes of “intimacy without intricacy.” That’s how grande dame Charlotte Rampling phrases it, playing the only sex club member who looks remotely like a real-life powerful businesswoman — and one of the few people in the movie who makes an impact on screen.
First-time director Marcel Langenegger has style to burn in Deception. He certainly makes it look like an arty thriller, with lots of chiaroscuro, jarringly extreme close-ups, and pools of saturated color. As the first sex club girl McGregor starts to care about, Michelle Williams resembles Veronica Lake by way of Helmut Newton, with a flowing blonde bob, blood-red lips and dominatrix heels. For someone whose getup is pure femme fatale, she acts surprisingly natural, but Mark Bomback’s screenplay gives her nothing to play.
Though Bomback penned a serviceable script for the cheesy Live Free or Die Hard, he can’t seem to think beyond genre clichés, and there’s nothing more ridiculous than a movie that keeps telling you you’re seeing something naughty. Williams takes McGregor for a walk on the wild side by . . . ordering at random from an English-free menu in Chinatown. Then they retire to a hotel, where she indulges in a spate of referring to herself in the third person, purring to the skittish number cruncher, “Who would judge these two people? Who would blame them?” Since she and Jonathan appear to be unattached consenting adults, a better question might be, “Who would care?”
McGregor’s interactions with Jackman don’t exactly have the tension they should have, either. Langenegger lights and paces these scenes so dramatically that it’s clear we’re supposed to see Wyatt as a tempter, a dark alter-ego, like Brad Pitt challenging Edward Norton’s conventionality in Fight Club. But Wyatt has no spiel, no anti-IKEA rant, no apparent worldview other than “sex and money rule.” Jonathan’s character is no more developed: The movie doesn’t even bother to show him going through the motions of his dreary little life before Wyatt steps in.
Then there’s the miscasting. When he tries to be villainous, Jackman could be channeling a hood from Guys and Dolls. McGregor, on the other hand, showed how well he could do the sexy-dangerous thing in Young Adam, a film in which he played a sociopathic drifter who bedded virtually every woman he met — he just couldn’t help himself. Disturbing as that movie was, it was a better “erotic thriller” than this one, which lacks the campy fun of Basic Instinct and even the queasy voyeurism of In the Cut. In a genre that’s all about risking the outré, Deception is so pedestrian it might have been scripted by a studio accountant.