Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Review - Derailed

There is plenty of potential on show in Derailed. Director Mikael Håfström won rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for his debut film Evil, while screenwriter James Beattie’s last effort was Michael Mann’s hugely entertaining thriller Collateral. As for the cast; Clive Owen is appearing here after his Oscar-nominated turn in Closer, Vincent Cassel can be one of the most interesting actors around when he’s on top of his game, and Jennifer Aniston is a woman with something to prove as she tries to break free of her TV persona and establish herself as a serious film actress.

Where did it all go wrong? Derailed starts off badly and rapidly gets even worse. It’s a glossy, tired, yuppie-in-peril thriller; the likes of which we’ve seen a million times before. But we’ve rarely seen it executed in such a slipshod fashion, and as this sub-Hitchcock nonsense spirals out of control we come to realise that we’re watching a film of rare ineptitude. Derailed is the first train to depart from the Weinstein brothers’ new station, and it flies off the rails with startling ease.
In Hollywood films, the guy who cheats on his wife is generally made to suffer for it, and here Clive Owen plays the sort of role that Michael Douglas was making his own around 15 years ago. Owen is Charles Schine, a married father who has a good job, a loving wife (Melissa George) and a cute little daughter whose advanced diabetes is putting a serious strain on the family finances. One of the major early flaws of Derailed is the fact that Schine is a very hard character to feel any sort of empathy for. He cheats on his wife, and ends up risking the life savings they’ve built up which in turn threatens his daughter’s healthcare; most viewers will feel he deserves everything he gets.

What he gets is a whole lot of trouble. After forgetting his fare on the train to work one morning, Charles’ embarrassment is saved by an attractive stranger who offers to pay for him. Lucinda (Aniston) throws a shapely leg Charles’ way and he’s immediately smitten. She’s married too, but after a flirtatious lunch the pair’s relationship accelerates quickly and they book into a shabby hotel for a night of passion. However, their coitus is interrupted by French mugger LaRoche (Cassel), who beats Charles, rapes Lucinda, and makes off with their wallets. When both have recovered, Lucinda refuses to go to the police for fear of their affair being exposed; but Charles is soon being blackmailed by LaRoche and, as the price for the crook’s silence escalates, the normally placid businessman is forced to take drastic action.

I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with this set-up per se, it’s just that we’ve really seen it all before and Derailed never looks like doing a single imaginative thing with it. The film has been adapted from James Siegel’s novel, and I can only hope for the book’s sake that some semblance of plausibility and structure has been lost in translation. Stuart Beattie’s screenplay is an unbelievable and inconsistent jumble of plot holes and clichés, with a series of increasingly ludicrous twists being thrown in as the film progresses. With such shoddy material at his disposal Håfström tries to give it some surface style at least, and the film is certainly slick and polished, but Peter Biziou’s impressive noir-ish camerawork is better than Derailed deserves.

All of the film’s characters are wafer-thin, and none of them manage to gain our sympathy or interest. Viewers who were surprised by Owen’s witty and charismatic turn in Closer will be disappointed to hear that he appears to have only borrowed a personality for one film, and his non-performance here is stupendously dull. In contrast, Cassel turns everything up to eleven as the psycho behind all Charles’ woes. He taunts his victim at every turn as he stays one step ahead of the game, and his manic display at least gives the film a dash of unpredictability here and there. He also contributes to one highly amusing scene in which he takes Charles’ testicles hostage.

And what of poor Jennifer Aniston in all this? Well, here the film suffers a near fatal piece of miscasting by dumping this actress in a role she is woefully unsuitable for. Aniston may be many things - she is a perfectly adept comic actress for one - but a Femme Fatale she is most definitely not. Floundering in her attempt to make the most of her bland sexuality, Aniston never looks comfortable as the supposedly alluring seductress for whom men will risk everything. It’s a blatant attempt to explode her girl-next-door image which backfires horribly and while Aniston still looks the most likely Friends star to make it on the big screen, projects like this can only hinder, rather than help, her cause.

Derailed ends up looking like the kind of film Adrian Lyne has churned out on so many occasions but without any of the sex which normally comes as standard. The closest the film does get to including any sex is a particularly nasty rape scene which, since we don’t care a whit for these characters, comes of looking especially cheap and gratuitous. The final act is truly awe-inspiring in its feebleness, with Owen’s previously dull-witted stooge suddenly becoming a quick-witted killing machine, and by the time the filmmakers deliver the laughable final twist in the tale, few viewers will be able to summon up the energy to register even the merest hint of surprise or interest.

Is there anything of merit in this film? Well, Cassel is at least lively, and I liked the supporting turn from rapper RZA (who, along with co-star Xzibit, has a name more imaginative than anything in the script), but Derailed is lacking in so many areas that the few bright spots are quickly engulfed by the overwhelming sense of pointlessness the film provokes. It’s a lurid, lazy and incredibly stupid film; and its only saving grace may be that it can lay claim to possessing the most appropriate title of the year.