Since its publication in 1989, Martin Amis’ bizarre, mind-twisting novel of seduction and murder has attracted interest from a number of filmmakers, all of whom eventually decided that the book might be a nut too tough to crack. How right they were is conclusively demonstrated by this adaptation from video-music director Mathew Cullen, a flashy but muddled and incredibly tedious farrago that tries desperately to reflect the novel’s prismatic literary brilliance in visual form but fails miserably.
To be fair, it might not be just to blame Cullen entirely for the picture’s failings. Amis himself apparently had a hand in writing the script with Roberta Hanley, and Cullen has sued the producers, claiming that they destroyed his cut (of course, they’re countersuing him for failing to fulfill his contractual obligations). That’s why a movie shot in 2013 has been sitting on the shelf for five years—it was scheduled to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2015, but was pulled from the schedule at the last minute as it entered legal limbo. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how the footage we see on the screen now could be rearranged to appreciably better effect.
In this form the picture is narrated—as was the book—by Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton), a dying American writer who arrives in London, which like the rest of the globe is suffering from some sort of imminent environmental catastrophe. He’s swapping apartments with British novelist Mark Aspery (Jason Isaacs), who’s taken over his much less plush New York place.
Samson is struggling with writer’s block, but thinks he’s found inspiration in the person of Nicola Six (Amber Heard), who lives in the flat above his new digs. She’s an incredibly sexy dame who claims to be a clairvoyant and foresees her own murder at a particular time and place; but she doesn’t who the killer will be. The prime suspects are two utterly dissimilar men who frequent the nearby bar that becomes Samson’s watering-hole. One is Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), a snarling creep who mistreats his wife (Cara Delevingne) when he isn’t dreaming of winning a darts championship against the current champ, Chick Purchase (Johnny Depp), a nasty dandy to whom Keith also owes a hunk of money. The other is Guy Clinch (Theo James), an upper-class businessman trapped in a marriage to an unfeeling wife (Jaimie Alexander) and unable to control their weird, destructive son (Craig Garner).
Samson effectively becomes the third man in Nicola’s life, shadowing her, Keith and Guy to gather material for what he hopes will be his literary masterpiece; the picture is divided into the chapters he writes as he watches what’s happening. Of course in the process he becomes more and more obsessed with the seductress himself, though he insists in his verbose fashion that love has nothing to do with it.
Amis’ book is, of course, an exercise in the old reality-versus-illusion game. As the plot proceeds, it becomes increasingly problematic as to whether what we’re seeing is actually occurring or is part of the writer’s imagination (especially since we see things that Sampson could not possibly witness). In the book, the playfulness of Amis’ writing (he is, after all, a great admirer of Nabokov) and his digressions into social satire can keep one entranced without worrying overmuch about logic, but Cullen never finds an effective visual equivalent.
What he and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro have come up with is a succession of often random ripe widescreen images, courtesy of production designer Jeremy Reed and costumer Susie Coulthard, interrupted by splashy, fast-moving montages that are often arresting in themselves but wind up as an attempt to dazzle us into forgetting how empty they actually are. (The editing is credited, if that’s the proper word, to Fred Fouquet and Joe Plenys, with an assist from the director.) When the whole business ends in a twist one can see coming from a distance, you’re likely to feel cheated, though a coda in which Isaacs’ Aspery appears for the first time in person (up until then we have only heard his voice) closes the major theme of narrative unreliability on a clever note.
There’s not much point in talking overmuch about the cast, since the figures they inhabit are more caricatures or literary devices than flesh-and-blood human beings. Thornton is appropriately solemn, though rather dull, while Heard plays the femme fatale for all the stereotype is worth. But James is no more than blandly handsome as the doomed, deluded Clinch, while Sturgess, looking as though he’s put on considerable weight for the role, tries much too hard to impersonate the sleazy skunk Talent, rattling out his lines in a rasping tone, mouth agape, like some knuckle-dragging ape (though one might be amused as well as appalled by his “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence). Depp brings his patented ironic winks to Purchase, but they don’t make much of an effect.
It may be that devotees of Amis’ book will appreciate that after a protracted delay the attempt to transfer it to the screen is being released, however briefly (certainly one can’t expect that it will attract much of an audience). What Cullen’s film proves, though, is that like some other pictures made from esteemed novels, Amis’ vision would have been better left on the printed page, where it belongs.