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Non-Review Review: The Deal

You know the kind of movie The Deal is. It’s about an over-the-hill writer who decides to screw with the Hollywood system and play it against itself, while seducing a beautiful woman and generally just being a cad. In short, it’s a movie writer’s fantasy. That’s by no means a bad thing, to be honest – when done right, you get the dark comedy Robert Altman’s The Player, a story of a writer’s revenge on a corrupt studio executive; unfortunately, when you do it wrong, you end up with a self-indulgent mess like The Deal.

Deal or no deal?

I could go on about how the movie isn’t funny or witty or smart or engaging, but these all stem from one essential problem with the film: it never gives us a reason to care. The lead character, Charlie Berns, is unlikeable. And that’s fine – there are plenty of unlikeable or unsympathetic leads. The problem with Charlie is that we don’t get a proper sense or understanding of him which helps us justify his incredibly vindictiveness towards everyone in the film. We can intuite his dislike of the studio system, but we’re never quite sure why he hates his nephew so much (or even why – despite being an excellent manipulator and hence aware of those around him – he seems so disconnected from him). It doesn’t help that the movie seems equally confused.

How is Charlie wasting everybody’s time to intentionally make a bad film any better that the way that Hollywood normally wastes everybody’s time to unintentionally make a bad film? How is the studio representative sent over to spy on the movie being caught having an extra-marital affair any worse than Charlie and Deirdre’s affair? Does the movie just make the assertion with ponderous awards fair (a D’Israeli biopic) is somehow immediately better than blockbuster fare (a D’Israeli action flick), ignoring the fact that it’s not necessarily the truth (give me The Dark Knight over The Reader any day, for example)? Not only does the movie seem bitter and vindictive, it also seems hypocritical.

And on top of that, it counters its lack of depth using cliché. Ooh, it’s a shallow action star, how fantastic! Oooh, a British character actor who is an OAP and confused by the pyrotechnics, how original! Oooh, an international director who has temper tantrums, you say, I’ve never seen that before! Yes, the first and last examples are both characters from Tropic Thunder (Tugg Speedman and Damien Cockburn respectively), but in that movie they actually seemed more fully drawn than the collection of cheap shots we get here.

I’ve always believed that it’s a very risky move to make a movie focused about Hollywood. It runs the risk of being populated with back-patting (or stabbing) and a whole host of in-jokes that make the audience feel like they’re at one of those parties where they don’t know anyone, but everyone is talking business. It takes the most skilled hands to avoid seeming self-indulgent and self-congratulation (as, even if it’s uncomplimentary, it still takes kudos to recognise your flaws, right?) and sadly these hands aren’t the right hands.

The movie also seems to insist on offering us a romance, which is grand. The problem is that it’s a romance between two characters who have no chemistry played by two actors who have no chemistry. The film completely side-steps Deirdre’s engagement as a barrier to their affair, allowing it to become an elephant in the room – even using it for a bit of second-act tension, but never really resolving it. And then there’s the fact that this relationship comes out of the fact that Charlie constantly humiliates her professionally and insists that “being a woman in a man’s world” is a constant niggling fear at the back of her mind.

Even a highly talented cast can’t put meat on these bones. William H. Macy does the best he can with the material, but the fact that he wrote the screenplay doesn’t exactly make that an overwhelming accomplishment. Charlie never really comes to life or seems like thing more than a selfish small-minded writer. Meg Ryan is woeful as Deirdre, but that suggests that there was potential in the part. I bet she must by looking at the other rom-com queen of the nineties – Sandra Bullock – with more than a hint of jealousy right now. I’ve always believed, perhaps against the odds, that LL Cool J might be a decent actor constantly trapped by bad scripts. Indeed, he offers the best performance of the film, but that’s like being king of the termites – hardly an accomplishment. And Elliot Gould seems to be biding time until he can cash his paycheck.

The Deal is a terrible film. It’s the worst I’ve seen so far this year. Okay, maybe second worst. But Lesbian Vampire Killers has a sort of ‘multiple layours of badness’ thing going on that actually seems like an accomplishment. On the other hand, The Deal is just a shallow failure.

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