There’s a certain anachronistic value system at work in “Deception” that’s both quaint and slightly annoying. So many things about this film seem so outlandishly yesterday as to prompt the sotto voce notion, “Are you guys for real?”

But director Marcel Langenegger, making his feature debut, and screenwriter Mark Bomback are indeed for real. Totally straight-faced (if not downright serious), they keep pushing the buttons of outdated-ness with diligent insistence. This, including the whiff of mothballs rising from the title, would have been fine if we were in the 1980s; in fact, I kept waiting for Michael Douglas and Demi Moore to show up. But in this day and age, it’s hard to get excited about suits from Wall Street getting steamy in hotel rooms, then becoming involved in a nasty cat-and-mouse game of sex and murder and money. I mean, really! Didn’t all that stuff go out when the millenium came in? Has mankind made no progress?

Not this time, apparently.

Director Marcel Langenegger
Run Time 107 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Nov. 8, 2008

In “Deception,” the story and characters may be set in present-day New York, but everyone acts like they’ve never seen or even imagined “Sex and the City.” There’s Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor), a corporate auditor and top accountant, a straight, nice guy — the type Carrie Bradshaw and friends would have swallowed before breakfast. Surprisingly, he can’t get a date. He confesses as much to Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) over a joint shared in Wyatt’s office, where Jonathan is looking over the books. Wyatt comes off as the equivalent of an espresso smoothie — bitter and sweet and bad for you — and has “Potentially Hazardous” metaphorically stamped on his seemingly candid forehead. Jonathan, however, is oblivious to the danger and fascinated by Wyatt’s sophisticated charm and pseudo-Euro mannerisms. Wyatt rewards Jonathan for this adoration by initiating him into a secret sex club for high-powered Manhattanites where the only rules are: “No names, no conversation and no rough play.”

As one older woman (played by Charlotte Rampling, whose authentic adult ambience is pretty much wasted) explains it to him: “It’s intimacy without intricacy.” No one is interested in anything as messy as relationships, she says, and sure enough, over the course of the next two weeks, Jonathan has a ball with a bevy of initially suited ladies in various posh hotel rooms across the city.

Things turn bad (as they inevitably do) when Jonathan falls for a beautiful blonde known only as “S” (Michelle Williams), who is sweet, lonely and likes him enough to actually converse over room service and, later, at a restaurant in Chinatown.

This is the part where the filmmakers get romantic — Jonathan and S agree that they should “get to know each other” before embarking on actual intimacy, and they just cuddle and kiss in their underwear, which goes against all the rules of their exclusive club — only enhancing their guilty pleasure. The sequence proves to be more embarrassing (for me, anyway) than if the pair had torn off each other’s clothing in a frenzy of lust — maybe it’s because Jonathan is wearing a white tee over boxers, making him look unbearably Woody Allen-ish. Whatever.

Then, after their hour of underclothed bliss, S disappears and Jonathan finds himself blackmailed by Wyatt and embroiled in the old transfer-cash-into-my-personal-account- or-I-kill-your-girlfriend game. To add a modern touch, there are scenes where photos of the bound and gagged S, her eyes pleading for help, pop up on Jonathan’s cell phone. Speaking of which, the movie seems inordinately obsessed with computer and cell-phone screens; every time a scene is on the brink of something truly raunchy or deplorable (or so it seems), the frame gives way to yet another closeup of another laptop or a bunch of guys in a dark boardroom hunched over a PC, all clutching cell phones as if they were pacemakers.

The only person not guilty of screen-addiction is the no-nonsense Detective Russo (Lisa Gay Hamilton) investigating the disappearance of S and a murder that happened in Wyatt’s company. Brisk and admirably professional, she suspects Jonathan but lets him sweat while she trails him up and down Manhattan. The only way he can clear his name is by finding Wyatt, finding S and recovering the money — though both he and the film metaphorically seem to shrug their shoulders and stare off into space. Jonathon seems painfully clueless and endlessly vulnerable; at this point you just want to wrap him in a blanket and offer him a cup of hot milk or something.

In the end, it’s kind of disheartening to think there are filmmakers out there who still assume sex clubs for executives are like, so glamorous, and that a straightforward combo of sex and cash equals major titillation — or that accountants are chumps in the dating scene. The precise, beautifully chilly cinematography by Dante Spinotti (known best for his work with Michael Mann) defined by nuanced hues of blue and black, almost compensates for the uncoolness of the proceedings — almost but not quite.

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