Thursday, June 24, 2004

Video: Paycheck (2003)

The further we get into the new millennium, the more it seems like Philip K. Dick is scripting it. His paranoid worldview, based on the notion that reality is malleable and that your brain might be in on the scam, is pervasive. So many movies traffic in his ideas that they might as well give him a credit: THE MATRIX films, THE TRUMAN SHOW, MEMENTO, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.

John Woo’s PAYCHECK is an adaptation of a Dick short story, one with the kind of lethal hook that demonstrates why filmmakers are drawn to his work. Ben Affleck plays an engineer who undertakes top secret design jobs for big money. In exchange, he has his memory wiped once his task is completed. He scores his biggest payday only to discover that he’s forfeited his riches in return for a collection of everyday objects: a matchbook, a paper clip. When mysterious forces come gunning for him, these items suddenly prove invaluable.

Woo and his collaborators make an error that’s common when translating Dick’s work to the screen. They set up the premise, then use it to frame a man-on-the-run thriller. Even Steven Spielberg’s hugely enjoyable MINORITY REPORT fell prey to this approach. The movie never engages the fundamental questions raised by the story: how much of identity is derived from memory? If you will yourself to forget, are you living at all? Affleck’s casting doesn’t help. I’m not a hater when it comes to Ben. He can be extremely effective in the right roles. But here he employs such blank facial expressions that he seems to be forgetting the movie as it happens without the aid of any neurological advances. The other characters are blond stick figures. Aaron Eckhart’s villain apparently styles his hair using the Paul Wolfowitz method on display in FAHRENHEIT 9/11: a comb and lots of saliva.

What we’re left with is a combination of MacGYVER and BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, but without their rigorous logic and character development. Suspense comes from seeing how Affleck will use each item in his magic envelope; the presence of an unfinished crossword puzzle pretty much guaranteed that I’d stick with the movie through the end. Woo’s action sequences are surprisingly muted. He does find a way to get a bird in there.

The DVD’s deleted scenes are revealing. They patch up several plot holes and include a few character details that would have been welcome in the finished film. The alternate ending also has more personality. The filmmakers were apparently determined to shave away any trace of idiosyncrasy. The end result is a movie that’s a lot like the sleek metal case Uma Thurman gives to Affleck that turns out to be a photo album. It’s impressively designed but utterly ordinary.

PAYCHECK is rated PG-13 for reasons that include “brief language.” Either a word is missing from that description, or monosyllables have become objectionable.

Miscellaneous: Links

Gov. Schwarzenegger actually describes his leadership style to the New York Times thusly: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” Demonstrating considerably less pop culture savvy, the Kerry campaign rewrites the words to ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’ I can’t call them lyrics. I just can’t.