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No walk in the park

The path twists confusingly through 'Wicker Park' and its tale of obsession.

September 03, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Wicker PARK" is an elegant tale of romantic obsession weighed down by a needlessly convoluted plot that yields far more confusion than psychological suspense. The gratuitous twists and turns of Brandon Boyce's script, based on the French film "L'Appartement," and director Paul McGuigan's relentlessly elliptical style undercut the finely shaded portrayal of its star, Josh Hartnett, and the worthy contributions of supporting players Matthew Lillard and Diane Kruger.

Hartnett's Matthew, an advertising executive, has returned to his native Chicago after two years in New York. He has a good job and is engaged to his boss' sister (Jessica Pare), but he's haunted by his lost love, a beautiful dancer, Lisa (Kruger), who left him without explanation. On the eve of a flight to Shanghai on business, he catches a split-second glance of a woman he thinks is Lisa, which sends him into an emotional tailspin. Without telling his boss or fiancee, he notifies his Chinese contacts that his trip will be delayed by several days as he begins his search for Lisa.

At this point "Wicker Park" plunges its audience into a plethora of flashbacks that soon make it all but impossible to distinguish one time frame from another with any degree of certainty -- and it doesn't help matters that the entire film seems to take place in wintertime. There are even moments when flashbacks seem to be taking place within flashbacks.

It's essential to remember that when Matthew first glimpses Lisa in Chicago's Wicker Park from a store across the street, a pretty brunet, Alex (Rose Byrne), is laying eyes on him for the first time. Eventually, the point of this very brief double encounter becomes clear: Alex, who is Lisa's neighbor, is as transfixed by Matthew as Matthew is by Lisa. That Lisa responds swiftly to Matthew propels Alex's obsession with him onto a destructive course. Now that Matthew is back in Chicago, Alex, who is completely unknown to him, has spotted him in the very restaurant where Matthew thinks he's glimpsed Lisa.

"Wicker Park" cannot sustain this fragmented narrative. Underneath its mosaic of quick cuts it's a traditional story of thwarted love, with suspense as to whether that love will ultimately triumph over an unrelenting attempt to destroy it. It's not designed to stimulate the viewer into wanting to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Since the intent of Alex's evil machinations is clear enough, a little more narrative clarity would have gone a lot further than the film's arty obfuscation does.

An equally serious drawback is that Byrne is unable to make Alex a captivating villainess. She's simply a hugely unsympathetic, hateful piece of work, too selfishly destructive for her and Matthew to be able to recognize themselves in each other, which would have given the film an intriguing dimension.

This is unfortunate because Hartnett has moments of shy, impassioned charm that recall the young Gary Cooper, and Lillard has a good-humored sweetness as Matthew's longtime friend. And Kruger has the goddess-like look of a young Jessica Lange that makes Matthew's fixation on Lisa entirely credible. Steadfast Hartnett fans may be willing to go along wherever "Wicker Park" takes them, but others are likely to find it not worth the effort.


`Wicker Park'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexuality and language

Times guidelines: Complicated adult themes and situations

Josh Hartnett...Matthew

Rose Byrne...Alex

Matthew Lillard...Luke

Diane Kruger...Lisa

Jessica Pare...Rebecca

An MGM and Lakeshore Entertainment presentation. Director Paul McGuigan. Producers Andre Lamal, Marcus Viscidi, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi. Executive producers Georges Benayoun, Gilles Mimouni, Henry Winterstern, Harley Tannenbaum. Screenplay by Brandon Boyce; based on the motion picture "L'Appartement," screenplay by Gilles Mimouni. Cinematographer Peter Sova. Editor Andrew Hulme. Music Cliff Martinez. Costumes Odette Gadoury. Production designer Richard Bridgland. Art director Pierre Perrault. Key set decorator Ginette Robitaille. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

In general release.

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