The marketing campaign for "Wicker Park" has been misleading, to say the least, suggesting a commonplace "Single White Female"-style thriller when what is offered is a great deal more thoughtful and subtle. Because the film is not what the trailers would lead one to believe, and because much of the pleasure elicited from watching it relies on the many unforeseen revelations within the plot machinations, discussing the picture in-depth is a tricky proposition. Suffice it to say, the viewer might benefit from knowing beforehand that "Wicker Park" is not a thriller at all, but a dramatic love story about fate and obsession that plays itself out like an elegantly constructed, complex mystery.
Matt (Josh Hartnett) is a photographer living in Chicago whose cherished actress girlfriend, Lisa (Diane Kruger), disappeared without a trace two years earlier. Although he has managed to move on with his life and recently gotten engaged to Rebecca (Jessica Pare), he has never forgotten the great love of his life. And then, one day while at an upscale restaurant, Matt thinks he glimpses Lisa before she disappears into the wintry city streets. With his co-workers believing he has flown to China on a business trip, Matt uses a key this mystery figure left behind in a telephone booth and tracks down her apartment. Who he finds living there is a different Lisa (Rose Byrne), who claims she has no idea who his old girlfriend is. Matt suspects something much more elaborate is going on under his nose as clues gradually mount that the old Lisa is somewhere in Chicago. Also figuring into the plot is Matt's good friend, Luke (Matthew Lillard), who has begun dating an aloof actress named Alex.
Directed with De Palma-like intricacy and style by Paul McGuigan (2004's "The Reckoning"), "Wicker Park" is a smart, fascinating puzzle of a film, incorporating non-linear storytelling and occasional split-screen photography to draw the viewer into the past and present of the characters and their touchy relationships with each other. A remake of the 1996 French film, "L'Appartement," unseen by me, screenwriter Brandon Boyce (1998's "Apt Pupil") has done a praiseworthy job of not dumbing down the challenging themes at work. Boyce suggests that one's intentions are not always as they might seem to another, and one of the most provocative scenes has the present-day Lisa telling Matt that people naturally set up impossibly idealistic expectations for those they care about, and are usually left disappointed by the reality.
"Wicker Park" works spectacularly well as an intriguing, constantly evolving mystery, but at the movie's core are two love stories, notably different from one another and with distinct outcomes but involving the same key character. The romance between Matt and Lisa, seen in brief flashbacks, lacks the indelibility of similar love stories seen in 2001's "Vanilla Sky" and 2004's "The Butterfly Effect"—the most notable flaw here—but a real rooting interest develops by the second hour to see these two characters finally reunite. The passion within their plight comes not from their relationship as much as it comes from the driving force with which director Paul McGuigan pushes forward and gets the viewer to care about Matt's ultimate catharsis is discovering the truth. The second love story is best left to discover on one's own, but it is touching and rather heartbreaking by its conclusion.
The cast is an admitted mixed bag, at least when it comes to one central performance. As the Lisa from the past, Diane Kruger (2004's "Troy") is sorely miscast, unable to dedicate herself to the character and exhibit the emotions needed within her vital scenes with Matt. Had a better actress been in this role—Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johansson or Katie Holmes, for instance—it would have leant more weight to the romance to make it a great one rather than a merely good one.
As Matt, Josh Hartnett (2003's "Hollywood Homicide") makes up for Kruger's inconsistency with an impassioned performance, underplaying things in a plausible manner because his character is a quietly desperate one who has lost the person he held dearest in his life. Matthew Lillard (2004's "Without a Paddle") effectively reigns in his usual manic energy as Luke, a character who grows more importance as the story progresses. Finally, and best of all, is Rose Byrne (also of 2004's "Troy"), bringing emphatic layers and an unforgettably poignant longing to the most enigmatic character, that of the present-day Lisa. In some ways, it is Byrne who we grow to care about most of all, although the circumstances surrounding her purpose should be left to discover on one's own.
Save for one or two muddy moments that could be considered plot holes, director Paul McGuigan does a splendid job of wrapping up all the loose ends without ever venturing into far-fetched territory. Everything makes perfect sense once revealed, and, even better, gives nuance and gravity to the film's carefully modulated motifs. The cinematography by Peter Sova of a bitterly cold, snow-filled winter in Chicago brings additional mood to the premise and makes for a memorable backdrop. "Wicker Park" is not the customary disposable cinematic fare released on the always-slow Labor Day weekend, but an intriguing, original film of ideas and human feeling. It leaves the viewers with more to munch on and think about once the end credits have rolled than the average mainstream film, making it a valuable rarity and a promising start to the autumn movie season.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman