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Wicker Park

Rose and I saw Wicker Park this weekend—which, as you’ll see if you check out Rotten Tomatoes, is not generally loved by critics (22% of the reviews are positive). Nor, judging by the reactions of certain members of the audience with whom we shared our theater on Saturday (and I can confidently say that these certain members are representative of the levels of intelligence, maturity, and critical-reading ability cultivated by many if not most Americans), will the movie go over well with the general public. The row behind us in the theater held two young teenaged girls, their middle-aged mother, and a middle-aged man. The girls giggled helplessly through the entire movie—especially during the sex scenes, which they thought were “sick.” The adults managed to restrain themselves until the climactic scene, when they began making snide comments to cover their abject confusion at the movie. I don’t really blame these people for their bad behavior—they’ve probably all been stunted by too many viewings of The Rock and Jersey Girl. They simply don’t have the mental faculties to grasp movies that deal in ambiguity, thoughtfulness, and emotional complexity. Wicker Park demands the viewer consider and even sympathize with the perspective of people who do bad things, and these people were simply not mature enough to abandon the comfort of dividing the characters into heroes and villains. I don’t blame them for their sad stupidity (or maybe just intellectual laziness), but I do wish they’d stayed out of my theater and seen something more appropriate to their intelligence, like Without a Paddle.

(Not that I want to equate the critics who reviewed the movie with the idiots who watched it with Rose and me. Most of the critics listed on Rotten Tomatoes seem to have reasonably sophisticated reasons for disliking the movie.)

Anyway, Rose and I enjoyed the movie. It’s a remake of the French L’Appartement. Matthew is a talented advertising designer, engaged to his boss’s sister Rebecca, and about to fly to China to seal a deal with a Chinese client of the ad agency. This isn’t the life he wants, and he drifts through it with a sense of dissatisfaction. He’s still hung up on a woman named Lisa, who apparently dumped him and disappeared from his life two years ago. He moved to New York after Lisa left, but he returned to Chicago a couple months before the movie begins. Going to a dinner meeting with representatives of the Chinese client, he runs into an old friend, Luke, whom he dropped when he moved to New York. Luke’s reappearance in Matt’s life foreshadows another specter from the past: he thinks he hears Lisa in a private phone booth in the restaurant, but she runs away (from him?) before he can confront her, breaking her shoe on the way out. The lure of finally solving the Lisa mystery outweighs Matt’s sense of responsibility to his fianc????e and his employer—he cancels his plane ticket, calls ahead to China claiming he’s sick and will be a few days late, and soon is hanging out at Luke’s apartment and applying his amateur sleuthing skills to track down Lisa. He finds a hotel key where she dropped it in the restaurant, breaks into her hotel room, steals her compact, and promptly falls unconscious as some sleeping pills Rebecca gave him take effect. Eventually he tracks her to her apartment, where he spies as an apparent ex-lover slips his key to the apartment under the door along with a farewell note. Matt steals the key and replaces the other guy’s note with one of his own. Later, he breaks into the apartment to wait for Lisa to return. Lisa does return—but it’s not his Lisa. She was at the restaurant the other day, she did run out and break her shoe, she did have the hotel room Matt broke into, the compact is hers—but she’s not the right Lisa. Even though she looked (from behind, at least) and sounded exactly like the right Lisa in the restaurant. What’s going on?

Matt’s stalker-like mission to find Lisa is juxtaposed with flashbacks to his first meeting and early relationship with Lisa. He, in fact, met her when he began stalking her. His first sight of her was in a video tape he watched when he was fixing her video camera (he worked in a camera store two years ago). His second was when he accidentally caught her onscreen on the sidewalk outside the store while playing with a video camera. After that, he followed her to the studio where she practiced dance, then pretended to be a shoe salesperson to get close enough to ask her out. Alas, she was onto his stalkerish ways, but she agreed to go out for coffee anyway.

I don’t usually bother avoiding spoilers, but I’m reluctant to give too much of this movie away to anybody who hasn’t seen it. A lot of the fun of the movie is watching the clockwork of the plot tick along and gradually break down, and observing how deftly the story sidesteps predictability. (It’s not that the story is really unpredictable or surprising, but the twisty plot is so clever that it never lets you get comfortable knowing what’s going to happen. Anybody who complains about the predictability of the plot is probably being disingenuous.) So, given my reluctance to spoil the movie, I warn you now that I’m going to give away the answers to some mysteries.

Wicker Park seems to follow the standard “breakdown of reality” narrative, as in stories like Vanilla Sky and many of Philip K. Dick’s novels: a regular, usually bland and mundane, protagonist sleepwalks through life, often vaguely dissatisfied, until he or she notices some little crack in reality, some small inconsistency or inexplicable oddness. Exploration of the crack leads to more and larger cracks, until finally the very foundations of the world shatter and the protagonist spirals down a vortex of insanity—or maybe finds a doorway and steps out into some new world. These stories usually offer a literal breaking of reality, on a cosmological level, but Wicker Park gives the formula a twist: there’s a seemingly mundane force behind the mysterious events tearing apart Matt’s life. Matt’s investigations, and the flashbacks to various important backstory events, suggest conspiracies and other sinister goings on, but it turns out that a woman named Alex who is in love with and/or obsessed with both Matt and Lisa has been manipulating them to keep them apart. Two years ago, Matt had asked Lisa to move to New York with him, and she wanted to go but couldn’t tell him in person (she had been selected to replace a famous dancer on a European tour and needed to leave immediately). She asked her friend Alex to deliver a letter to Matt, but Alex didn’t deliver the letter and told Lisa she found Matt in bed with another woman. Matt thought Lisa had dumped him, Lisa thought Matt had dumped her. Two years later, Alex is meeting Lisa in the same restaurant where Matt is meeting with his Chinese clients. Alex gets Lisa out of the restaurant with some quick maneuvering on a pay phone—but not before Matt thinks he sees her. The rest of the movie spans three days in which Alex insinuates herself into Matt’s life so she can manipulate both Lisa and Matt to keep them from finding each other. Her ruse finally collapses, though. She’s been dating Luke, at first without realizing the connection and later in order to keep tabs on Matt. By the closing scenes of the movie, the smooth clockwork of Alex’s machinations has transformed into a rickety love quadrangle that’s bound to implode on itself at any moment.

The answer to the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance is a case of mundane romantic obsession and manipulation, but the movie amplifies and skews it all until it takes on frightening proportions. It reminds me of The Usual Suspects, which takes a mundane activity (lying to cops to cover up a crime) and amplifies it until it becomes a horror story of a corrupted world, controlled by a man so powerful in his deceit that he might as well be the Devil himself, the Prince of Lies. Alex doesn’t achieve the terrifying power of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze/the Devil in The Usual Suspects, but her deceit is nearly as devastating. The most important thing to realize about Wicker Park (something that entirely escaped the sadly stupid audience members behind us) is that she did fail—she’s only human.

The dominant theme in the movie, both visually and narratively, is perspective. What people see and why is central. Obviously, this is central to Alex’s plot: she strives to control what everybody sees. There’s a recurring split-screen visual motif used to show what people see. One half of the screen contains a character who is looking at something, the other half shows the object of observation from the character’s point of view. The split-screen motif is cleverly echoed in the flashback scene in which Matt first sees Lisa—he stands in the foreground aiming the camera, while the background is filled with TV screens displaying his tracking shot of Lisa. The movie constantly reminds us that the images on the movie screen are subjective, not objective. There are scenes shot from an objective perspective, such as one in which Matt and Lisa stand ten feet apart on a sidewalk and miss noticing each other by less than a second, but those scenes also emphasize the limitations 0f what we see.

There’s a more subtle use of the perspective theme in the narrative. Alex is superficially the bad guy of the story, Matt is superficially the beleageured hero, but only because the story is told from Matt’s perspective. He and Alex are both stalkers, but Matt’s stalking Lisa seems more harmless because nothing too bad comes of it. Stalking people you’ve never met to get close enough to ask them on a date, breaking into a hotel room and apartment you think belong to somebody you knew a couple years ago, and screwing your employer and dumping your fianc????e in an airport because you’ve rediscovered an old girlfriend you wish you’d never lost—these crimes of Matt’s are hardly less destructive and irresponsible than Alex’s. Matt and Lisa have a sweet reunion at the end of the movie, but it’s hard to be happy for them since the reunion occurs seconds after Matt cruelly and unceremoniously boots Rebecca out of his life. The movie makes Matt look like the hero by pushing the results of his destructive behavior to the margins, but a small alteration of perspective makes him as villainous as Alex.


  1. Shane says:

    I’m not going to read the whole thing because I want to see Wicker Park no matter what critics say, but I did see Without a Paddle today and thought it was funny. Now would I go to one expecting the other? Not likely. I sympathize with you having to deal with audience reactions. I had to deal with the same thing in Butterfly Effect and Eternal Sunishine of a Spotless Mind.

    — 8 September 2004 at 3:44 am (Permalink)

  2. Rick says:

    I dislike Wicker Park only because I LIVE in Wicker Park, and if I have to hear one more person giggle and ask, “Wicker Park? Like the movie?” I may have to impale them with something.

    But if both of you liked it, I’ll probably have to check it out at some point. Even with the above and my general loathing for Josh Hartnett.

    — 8 September 2004 at 3:58 am (Permalink)

  3. Steven says:

    I didn’t get too angry at these badly behaved moviegoers, because they seemed genuinely not to know any better (including the adults). They were contrite and tried to be quiet whenever I glared at them, but they didn’t have the attention spans or the self-control to maintain silence. They were annoying, but less so than, say, the old folks at The Manchurian Candidate who clearly knew better but didn’t care about anybody else.

    I think the only other movie I’ve seen Josh Hartnett in is Pearl Harbor, which is a black vortex of loathing from which no good can escape. Now that I’ve seen Wicker Park, my opinion of him is somewhat better.

    So did you see them filming the movie in Wicker Park?

    — 8 September 2004 at 3:00 pm (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    Rick, I think Josh Hartnett works here (and I haven’t seen him elsewhere) because his character’s cluelessness and self-absorbtion are his defining characteristics.

    And Shane, I think Without a Paddle would be awfully close to entirely the opposite of a movie I would like to see, so I’m definitely skipping that one, but I understand that most people don’t have the same sense of humor I do!

    And audience reactions drive me crazy, which I think has rubbed off on Steven by now. I’m actually getting better about it, but I used to get almost physically ill when I was upset by responses or talking or general impoliteness/harassment. I really would almost rather not go to the movies at all, because it’s really hard for me to enjoy myself there, but seeing things on a big screen can be better quality than what we can get at home, so it’s a tough decision. But if we’re going to a movie that should be popular with teens, we try to go at off hours to avoid the worst excesses. I think they should just put me in charge of the world, and I’d clean up movie theaters in no time.

    — 8 September 2004 at 3:08 pm (Permalink)

  5. Shane says:

    Well I saw Without a Paddle with a group of guys. It’s mainly the guys growing up and becoming adults movie while doing a lot of crazy shit. I know people like the characters in the movie. It’s not for everyone thats for sure. If I didn’t know people just like the characters I don’t think I would have seen it.

    I hate going on opening night, but thats when my friends always seem to want to go. I’m closer to your mindset Rose. I like to go when no one is there.

    — 8 September 2004 at 4:44 pm (Permalink)

  6. Rick says:

    Steven - I don’t believe I saw them filming around here, but I can’t be sure. I think it was about the same time that the Ocean’s 12 crew was in my neighborhood filming, too. I’m not even sure how much filming Wicker Park did here, because the park in the trailer doesn’t really look like the real Wicker Park…

    As for Hartnett, I’ve only seen him in a few other movies - Pearl Harbor needs to be erased from collective memory, 40 Days and 40 Nights was even worse, what I saw of O ranked about the same…really, I’ve only liked him in Blackhawk Down, but that’s because he didn’t say much. I do hold out hope for him, though, since he’s going to be in both Sin City and The Rum Diary.

    — 8 September 2004 at 10:30 pm (Permalink)

  7. Steven says:

    I guess I’ve seen Hartnet in Blackhawk Down too… it’s hard to remember who’s in that movie since all the American soldiers are indistinguishable.

    — 9 September 2004 at 3:41 pm (Permalink)

  8. J.W. Hastings says:

    I find Pearl Harbor more silly than loathesome. It did provide one of the best ever Roger Ebert lines: (paraphrase) “Pearl Harbor is a movie about that tragic day when the Japanese launched a sneak attack on an American love triangle.” However, I think Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale are both very good in it. I also think that both Beckinsale and Hartnett don’t get enough credit for their acting because they’re both best playing average-type characters. Hartnett’s like a hunkier version of Tobey Maguire. One of the fun things about Wicker Park is watching Hartnett’s “Average Guy” go over the deep end.

    For my money, his two best performances are in the ciminally underrated Hollywood Homicide (which is like a good Carl Hiaasen book) and in The Virgin Suicides.


    — 12 September 2004 at 12:14 pm (Permalink)

  9. Shane says:

    Did you by any chance see Garden State?

    — 13 September 2004 at 3:59 am (Permalink)

  10. Steven says:

    I suppose I found Pearl Harbor both silly and loathsome. Hartnett’s average-guy blandness that obscures what turns out to be a very strange character is definitely part of what makes Wicker Park entertaining.

    Neither Rose nor I has seen Garden State, although I think we are probably going to eventually, on DVD if not in the theater.

    — 13 September 2004 at 4:24 am (Permalink)