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Review: 'Trance,' messy and deceptive, is no work of art

Director Danny Boyle's film about an art heist gone wrong is undone by its overuse of feints and dodges. James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson star.

April 04, 2013|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Don't look to be entranced by "Trance." It starts out like a house afire, but by the time it's over we're the ones feeling burned. A slick heist tale with more twists than sense, this is one movie that ends up outsmarting itself.

Both the good and the bad things in "Trance" are traceable to director Danny Boyle, who assembled the capable cast (James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson) and has long wanted to film this project.

As co-written by Joe Ahearne (whose 2001 British TV movie was the basis for this production) and Boyle's "Trainspotting" collaborator John Hodge, "Trance" certainly starts out promising, brimming with the director's particular brand of manic energy.

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Best known for his Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire," Boyle hates to do the same film twice. Given that he made something lively out of "127 Hours," the story of a hiker pinned in a Utah canyon by a falling rock for all that time, Boyle certainly seemed suited to making a successful film about an art theft gone very, very wrong.

Introduced first with a glib monologue about stolen paintings is London auction house employee Simon (McAvoy), who talks about what it takes (muscle and nerve, if you want to know) to pull off an art robbery.

This is not some hypothetical treatise, of course. In the blink of an eye, Simon is involved in the theft of Goya's "Witches in the Air" (safely in Madrid's Prado Museum in real life) just after it goes under the auction house hammer for more than $27 million. But in the fracas that ensues, Simon sustains a blow to the head and when he awakes realizes to his chagrin that temporary amnesia has robbed him of all memory of where he's stashed the masterpiece.

If this frustrates Simon, it infuriates Franck (Cassel), the impatient head of the robbery gang who ransacks the poor man's car and apartment while he's hospitalized. Once Simon is released, the crooks initially assume he's faking memory loss, so they methodically pull out his fingernails, an unpleasant hint of how off-putting "Trance" will turn out to be.

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Stymied at every turn, Franck insists that Simon go to a hypnotherapist. Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson), a cool American whose ultra-soothing voice is usually employed dealing with clients' morbid obesity or panic attacks, is selected at random.

Elizabeth intuits that Simon is in some kind of trouble and that the stolen Goya is involved. Confronting her patient and Franck in what turns into more or less a three-character drama, Elizabeth insists on getting a cut of the loot if she is going to help Simon recover his memory. "We keep secrets from ourselves," she says enigmatically, "and call it forgetting."

It's at this point that "Trance's" plot really starts, though you end up wishing it hadn't. For promising as that set-up may sound, all it really delivers is frustration and dismay. How did a film that does so many things right end up in such a sorry state?

For one thing, "Trance" turns out to be all trickery all the time, with nonstop feints and dodges nested one inside the other like Russian dolls. We all like twists in our thrillers, but too much of a good thing is more than a cliché here, it's a confusing reality.

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Causing even more headaches (as if that were necessary) is that Simon can be put into hypnotism-induced trances quite easily. It turns out to be difficult telling if we're watching one of his trances as opposed to the nominal reality of the rest of the movie. Yet because this film isn't made with the skill of Christopher Nolan's similar "Inception," we don't really care to try.

Because it is so slick, "Trance" incorrectly assumes that its heedless lack of emotional connection doesn't really matter, that it's no problem if there isn't anybody you care to identify with or any outcome you want to see. This overall chill ensures that a kinky sexual plot element involving full frontal female nudity comes off as crassly exploitative, a cold end in itself.

Showoffy, super pleased with itself, too glib too often, "Trance" squanders the energy created by Anthony Dod Mantle's camera work, Jon Harris' editing and Rick Smith's music.

Boyle sandwiched his stint on the feel-good London Olympics opening ceremony between his work on "Trance," and he said in a Sight & Sound interview that "all the dark stuff that we couldn't put into the Olympics has ended up here." Although that transference apparently made him feel better, it's going to make audiences feel a whole lot worse.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Trance'

MPAA rating: R, for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images and language

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: In general release

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