Deception, starring Hugh Jackman and Ewan McGregor, is being sold as an "erotic thriller." Any experienced cinemagoer knows that this phrase, which promises two things, usually indicates a film that will fail to deliver either. American studio films either tiptoe around sex or stomp on it with clown shoes, and the modern thriller often relies on activities that are not, and cannot ever be, thrilling -- electronic funds transfers, typing, mouse-clicking. Deception, directed by Marcel Lanegger from a script by Mark Bomback, begins as Ewan McGregor's lonely auditor Jonathan McQuarry labors late into the night in a huge conference room, vast windows looking out over the lights of the city. Shut in, walled-away, cut-off, Jonathan is worse than miserable; he's invisible. But then Hugh Jackman's brash, blunt Wyatt Bose waltzes in, makes some small talk, sparks up a joint. It's not what Jonathan's used to. Then again, he hates what he's used to.
Jonathan and Wyatt become fast friends, but Jackman's wolf-like smile makes it clear he's the alpha dog in the friendship. But a mishap of swapped cell phones means Jonathan and Wyatt have crossed lines -- and lives -- and Jonathan gets an enigmatic call over and over, different women's voices all saying the same thing: "Are you free tonight?" One time, he says yes, and stumbles into a bizarre new social circle -- The List, where well-to-do men and women connect anonymously and briefly for, as one woman explains to Jonathan, "intimacy without intricacy." And, for a while, Jonathan -- lonely, uptight, Jonathan -- goes for it. Hotel rooms, frantic couplings, the pleasures of contact without the pressures of connection. Wyatt doesn't mind Jonathan taking advantage of Wyatt's membership in an exclusive group; have fun, go for it. But soon Jonathan meets someone on The List, a woman he only knows by her initial, 'S' (Michelle Williams), one who actually makes him feel something more than lust, and you sense that rules will be broken.
And then the twists and turns are revealed, but it's not as if we're being taken through terra incognita; instead, we're going back over a route we've traveled many times before, with more capable people at the wheel. There is a startling moment of violence; there is a revelation; there is a demand made that, if complied with, may prevent even worse things from happening. And Bomback -- who also wrote Live Free or Die Hard and Godsend -- does not vary that familiar plot enough to make us feel truly engaged by any of it.
For a while, you can slide along on the silvery sheen of Deception; photographed by Dante Spinotti (Heat, The Insider), Deception at the very least looks great. Shooting on film for daytime scenes and with digital cameras for scenes set at night, Spinotti captures the brute, blurry rush and push of modern urban life as Wyatt and Jonathan cruise clubs, or Jonathan races through the streets trying to figure out what's being done to him. But beauty, as we know, is only skin deep, and Deception goes through the zigs and zags of its plot like a figure-skating champ doing the compulsory exercises -- not without skill and not without energy, but completely without any spark of creativity or individuality.
The actors are all better than this material, and that makes a few scenes shine; McGregor actually conveys Jonathan's loneliness and self-doubt, and when The List unfolds itself to him, he dives in like a kid at a candy store, albeit one where the candy comes wrapped in expensive lingerie. Jackman gets to show off a nice snarl as Wyatt's easy grin breaks open to reveal sharp teeth. And Williams manages, in one scene, to be both earthy and sensual, combining warmth with real heat. In fact, the cast is so good that it made me wonder what Deception would have been like if it did not have to turn into a story about a con -- if it could have simply explored the complicated territories and transactions of desire and discretion in the modern age, if it could have been about how all these people wanted to live instead of about what some of these people wanted to steal.
And there are a few moments in Deception that have some small flicker of an erotic charge to them, but they're swiftly passed over so we can get to the lying and the stealing and the hitting and the chasing. And so we get scenes full of modern thriller clichés -- foreign bank accounts, the slowly-moving animation of the progress bar during an international funds transfer. People get uncomfortable thinking about sex in terms of desire and want, but no one gets uncomfortable thinking about money in terms of take and steal. Sex, in American films, is reduced to either mainstream Hollywood's blue-lit close-shot faces or the grim industrial product that is modern pornography. And there are occasional exceptions to that on both sides of the spectrum, but mostly, a Hollywood film cannot be erotic; it has to be an erotic thriller. And much like other recent erotic thrillers -- Derailed, Perfect Stranger, Basic Instinct 2, Taking Lives -- Deception is star-filled and competently crafted, but so afraid of real sexuality that it instead offers us soft-lit perfume-ad images, and is erroneously convinced that moviegoers won't be able to spot lazy storytelling once their glasses are steamed up by a few flashes of skin. Erotic stories are about want and feel; thriller stories are about take and kill. And you can combine those very different things into a cohesive film -- Vertigo's the best possible demonstration, but there are others -- but Deception doesn't come close to that level of quality; if Deception's good, glossy cast and gorgeous visuals elevate it a little above the likes of similar recent films, that's not so much praising Deception as it is noting how far down our expectations have been lowered.