Roman Polanski's latest thriller, The Ghost Writer, is a fascinating mash-up of homages, cinematic in-jokes and self-references, the sort of film that tends to either delight or irritate film buffs -- sometimes inspiring both reactions silmutaneously -- while leaving more casual viewers a bit flummoxed. Surely Polanski couldn't have meant for his green-screen backgrounds to be so patently false! And oh, the performances are stiff and self-conscious! Almost immediately, the arguments begin in one's own head as to whether this movie is deliberately, stylishly melodramatic, or a tad clunky by accident.
As good as The Ghost Writer is -- and it really is quite good -- the film itself doesn't seem to know, either. Part of the problem may lie in the road it took to the screen, what with the director finishing the film while under house arrest in Switzerland, and additional studio meddling which resulted in a painful number of overdubbed line-readings turning effing F-words into "soddings" and "buggers" in order to acquire a PG-13 rating. What's left is the feeling that this could have been one of the director's great films, in the same league as Chinatown or Knife in the Water, but the distractions of Polanski's personal life, and other forces behind the scenes, kept it from reaching masterwork status.
The plot, adapted from Robert Harris' novel The Ghost, is a clever bit of nouveau noir: A professional ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) is offered a truckload of money to complete the memoir of former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the original ghost dies under suspicious circumstances. Isolated at Lang's coldly modern beach house and warned by Lang's assistant (Kim Cattrall) that the manuscript must be kept under lock and key, the ghost slowly pieces together a puzzle that connects the memoir, Lang's involvement in a CIA torture scandal, and his predecessor's death. McGregor's wide-eyed, "who me?" demeanor brings the right note of dewy dimness to the role, playing as he is a man who should have heard klaxon horns as soon as he was offered $250,000 for a month's work.
The heaviest handed of Polanski's homages comes with the way he fashions his picture as a modern-day Hitchcock film, with Cattrall standing in for Hitch's signature icy blonde (and doing a fine job, despite an accent that veers wildly from upper-crust British to mid-Atlantic and back again) while Olivia Williams, as Lang's wife, fills out the darker side of the neurotic-noir-gal quotient. A propulsive, orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat evokes Bernard Herrmann's music for North by Northwest without being nearly as memorable. Polanski is at his Hitchcockiest in scenes that involve driving (a long set piece that has McGregor following the directions on a car's GPS recalls James Stewart tailing Kim Novak in Vertigo) and an almost-final sequence that follows a note, passed hand-to-hand through a party, that goes on for about six hands further than it should.
The Ghost Writer also suffers a bit from overall tone, in that Polanski's best films have had an intimate, close-in, almost claustrophobic quality to them, while here the action takes place in a glass-and-concrete mansion and outdoors on windswept winter beaches. All this chilly expanse is intended to create a sense of isolation, but unfortunately it also fails to draw us into McGregor's increasing peril, as does Polanski's insistence on presenting a couple of key plot turns via characters watching the news on enormous plasma-screen televisions -- it keeps us at a distance, where the Hitchcock films on which Polanski is obviously basing this picture all become tighter framed, more entangled and tense as the story gallops toward conclusion. Despite a lot of wonderful imagery and a smart screenplay, the film is just too visually expansive and laconic to inspire an overwhelming sense of dread.
It's interesting to note that one of the better references in The Ghost Writer is to Polanski's own work. As McGregor's writer unravels the unsavory facts about his new job and his employer, we return two or three times to shots of Lang's groundsman, a middle-aged Asian man, attempting to sweep off the deck outdoors next the beach. The wind whipping around him, he keeps adding detritus to a wheelbarrow only to have the wind blow it all back out onto the deck again. It's a clever visual metaphor, and also recalls the Japanese gardener in Chinatown, who provided a key clue when he told Jake Gittes that his employer's salt-water pond was "bad for glass."
Almost any film by a master director offers moments that delight and illuminate, even when the movies themselves are minor offerings in the director's oeuvre (see as well: Scorsese's Shutter Island). The pace of The Ghost Writer is deliberate and assured; the performances by the actors are wisely considered. It's a good-looking film that feels as if it could have used a bit of tightening up, as well as an R rating to avoid the unfortunate overdubbings -- but there are moments of brilliance that make it more than worth tolerating the missteps.