In many ways this is a remake of "Dial M for Murder", the classic Hitchcock thriller, but if you haven't seen Dial M yet, watch this one first. There are many differences in the storyline - enough to make each stand alone as its own separate movie.
The movie really has only four characters - currency trader Stephen (Michael Douglas), his wealthy trophy-wife Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the artistic lover David (Viggo Mortensen) - plus a few brief appearances by Mohamed (David Suchet). Interestingly, you would think with so few characters that each would come across as complex and well developed - but the focus here is on the intricate plot and the gorgeous sets. The actors are all of course brilliant, but they are playing characters that are very stereotypical.
Douglas delights in his villain role and mentions this many times in the commentary - that it means he can go the theatrical and dramatic route. You can see in the beginning of the movie - he plays Stephen as a very cool, intelligent man who plots out everything he wants in life, and then gets it. You can understand how he seduced and wooed the naive Emily and got her to marry him without signing a prenup. Now he is going to take advantage of her affair to get rid of her, and get the money.
Viggo plays the sleazy lover / artist who is actually a serial seducer, who has been in jail twice for taking advantage of rich women. He lives in a large loft cluttered with his artwork. Of interesting note is that Viggo actually painted all of his own artwork - and painted it right in that loft. He put a lot of work into becoming his character, and the Polish residents of that area of New York actually did think he was an artist. David did in fact deliberately seduce Emily for her money - but along the way he began to fall in love with her. It takes an apparent betrayal by Emily before he goes along with Stephen's scheme. It's very interesting - when you first see David, he is very well dressed, very handsome. But as the movie goes on, he degenerates more and more until by the end his hair is greasy, his look is furtive and he has gone back to being the con-man he was before he first met Emily. He becomes "un-saved" during the course of the movie.
Gwyneth has a hard character here. If you compare this story with the original Dial M, in the original the female character was a door post. She sat there with no brain cells and no activity. We have a HUGE improvement with Emily - she works with the UN and is very savvy. But even so, it's a shame they made her such a stereotype. She is a beautiful, rich trophy wife. She was seduced and "taken" by Stephen who obviously cared little for what she was actually about. Stephen just wanted her cash and arm candy appeal. Being naive, she believed Stephen and didn't sign a pre-nup. Then she was seduced and "taken" by David, who again cared little for what she was. David just wanted the cash. I realize of course that some women are naive and that some men are out for conquest. But with the screenplay being so "smart" and well developed - and with the two male characters both being so intelligent and planning - it was a shame to have the girl just bumble through the situations going "Jeez, I can't imagine he would HURT me ..." like a 13 year old innocent. She lives in New York, she works for the UN. She shows her brilliance in her mastery of multiple languages and her understanding of complex financial situations. It would have been really nice to carry that over into an insight about relationships as well.
I also feel sorry for David Suchet. He is a brilliant actor, but Mohamet gets hardly any lines or action. He only appears in a few scenes and he mostly gives Emily a prodding to move forward in her investigations.
The sets are gorgeous, as are the backdrops of New York City. The locations are in fact right near where Gwyneth grew up. The cinematography has a very theatrical feeling to it. Sometimes things are just a little TOO obvious. It was perfectly clear what the murder weapon was going to be. But I suppose with the tiny details of the plot being so well done, sometimes they couldn't be sure that the entire audience "got it" and had to help out. There are many little things - like an open door - that you might not even catch until you watch the movie a second time. There are a number of 'background items' that are very well done - a comparison between David's raw, powerful art style and Stephen's staid, "what is popular at the moment" collection.
The movie for me was great until the ending scene. There are in fact 2 versions of the ending that you can see on the DVD - and the ending they used is at least far better than the alternative. In the alternative. Emily confronts Stephen with knowledge of the murder plot and simply shoots him in the chest. Mohamed realizes this is what happens but lets Emily get away with "The Perfect Murder" because he feels sorry for her. In the ending they used, it is only slightly more legal - Emily has a gun and antagonizes Stephen by telling him she is going to go tell the police and get him locked up for life. She goads him into attacking her, he does, and she then shoots him. Lawyers would tell you that as she had a gun, it was her responsibility to not provoke him - she should just have left and gone to the police without instigating his fury. Again, in the second version, Mohamed lets her get away with it.
Both of the endings bothered me. Yes, Stephen was a criminal. So was David. Both were actively using Emily. She had the proof of these activities. Instead of reducing the great plot and intricacies of the entire movie into a shooting match, she should have shown her OWN brilliance and roped him into a public exposure of his failures and forced him to live with years of suffering in jail, with public humiliation. It's what his psyche would have hated the most. Instead she pushed his buttons, knowing he'd attack, knowing she'd have to shoot him. In the movie it might have been "the perfect murder" but in reality it reduced her to the level of those who had been using her all along. I didn't find that ending satisfying at all.
I'm very impressed with Viggo's artwork, and with his touches. He's the one who came up with the idea of throwing paint across the painting of Emily, to show when his heart turns against her. I like how his appearance degenerates from handsome-and-in-control at the beginning, to sleazy, slimy and furtive by the end. You don't get to hear him speak any languages in this movie - Emily gets to have that talent. You would think that could have been part of the attraction between the two of them, though - that both of them shared a love for languages.
I do have to wonder why Viggo always seems to get the roles of the 'back door man'. He's the guy that slides in and sneaks away with a woman he knows is taken. Doesn't that seem a bit odd? Why isn't he seen as the man that would honorably court and win the heart of a woman that is available? Why does he end up in roles where he figures he can 'take the easy way' by having sex with a woman that doesn't require any responsibilities? Is it that long hair of his? :)
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