Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr had far less trouble getting together in “An Affair to Remember” than Josh Hartnett and Diane Kruger do in Paul McGuigan’s “Wicker Park,” an English-language remake of writer-director Gilles Mimouni’s “L’Appartement” from 1996. Part mystery, part romance, part thriller and part comedy (a would-be combination of “Vertigo,” the aforementioned “Affair,” “Charade” and “Single White Female”), the picture is slickly made (with a nice production design by Richard Bridgland that makes good use of the titular landmark area in northwest Chicago, as well as spiffy widescreen cinematography by Peter Sova) but grows increasingly preposterous and precious as it makes its way to a predetermined end. In the process it turns coincidences and near-misses into something like an art form, ultimately proving a satisfactory example of none of the genres it strains to mix.
Hartnett, looking wan and fluttery, plays Matthew, a nerdy Windy City photographer who falls madly for a gorgeous woman whom he spies on the street. Through one of those insufferably cute meetings at a shoe store where he poses as a singularly inept salesman, he learns that she’s a dancer named Lisa (Kruger), and before long they’re a serious couple. Just after he’s asked her to move in with him, however, she abruptly disappears for a job abroad, leaving him devastated. He moves to New York and enters the advertising game, returning after two years with a good job and a fiancee, the boss’s sister Rebecca (Jessica Pare). But just as he’s about to catch a plane for China on important company business, he spots a woman he thinks is Lisa, secretly postpones his trip, and tries to track her down. His search, however, leads him to a completely different woman, a strange, moody type who claims also to be named Lisa (Rose Byrne). This Lisa comes on to Matt, but proves not to be what she seems; indeed, she’s actually not a nurse, as she says, but an actress, and her name isn’t Lisa, it’s Alex. Even worse, she’s the girlfriend of Matt’s best buddy Luke (Matthew Lillard), who happens to be a real salesman at the shoe store where Matt first met the real Lisa.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal all the curves that the plot follows from here; suffice it to say that the corkscrew-shaped script has plenty of twists in store, though some of them–like a sidebar involving a lovesick, and possibly dangerous, fellow played by Christopher Cousins–go nowhere. It should also be noted that they’re revealed in a deliberately convoluted fashion; though the precis given above seems straightforward enough, the events in (and beyond) it are actually shown in non-linear form, with the film starting toward the end of the story and then proceeding through flashbacks as well as chronological narrative, and using lots of cinematic devices like split screens and quick cuts to dole out information in a jigsaw-puzzle way. By the midway point you’ll probably feel that the reels of celluloid have become like a deck of cards that’s constantly being shuffled and reshuffled by a dealer at one of those sideshow booths where you have to guess where the ace winds up. To be fair, McGuigan shows considerable skill in juggling all the things that are going on, visual and explanatory. There’s no doubt about the fact that he’s got technique.
But all the directorial virtuosity brings very little payoff, because as the complications increase and characters constantly just miss one another, the incidents overwhelm one’s ability to suspend disbelief; your pleasure at being fooled declines and your level of frustration escalates. Ultimately “Wicker Park” runs into the same trouble that “Identity” faced back in 2003: its cleverness outruns itself, and its intricacy trails off into absurdity. The cast surely isn’t strong enough to salvage things. Hartnett displays his full panoply of hangdog expressions–boyishly nervous and geekily frightened seem to be the two he can muster–though one must congratulate hairdresser Rejean Goderre for managing to keep the actor’s normally unruly hair under control (or should the credit go to the special effects team at L’Intrigue?). Byrne tries for the same sort of trembling menace that Jennifer Jason Leigh demonstrated in “Single White Female,” but doesn’t succeed nearly as well; Kruger is simply stiff. Lillard, meanwhile, proves more restrained than usual as the befuddled best friend, but in his case “restraint” is a very relative concept. One feels for poor Pare, who struggles futilely to make Rebecca, who’s basically nothing more than a mistreated doormat, something more than that, and for Cousins, whose role, which originally seems a big part of a potential thriller plot, becomes little more than a smelly red herring.
There’s really only one element that’s genuine in “Wicker Park”–the atmosphere of wintry Chicago that it captures. The snow is real, and the actors look positively frigid in their many outdoor scenes, their faces red and the breath visibly streaming from their mouths. Against so authentic a backdrop, the plastic emotions and contrived story turns seem all the more wispy and ridiculous. In the end McGuigan’s movie is like a perpetual motion machine that careens crazily along until it collapses under its own weight.