Chicago restaurant in "Wicker Park" is called Bellucci's in heartfelt homage to the movie that inspired this film -- "L'Appartement." Even virgin viewers will detect that "Wicker Park's" narrative intricacies are superior to its lackluster performances. Pic's presence in theaters should amount to little more than an advertisement for its DVD release.

The Chicago restaurant in “Wicker Park” is called Bellucci’s in heartfelt homage to the movie that inspired this film — “L’Appartement,” the crackerjack 1996 French pic that marked the first pairing of Monica Bellucci and her future husband, Vincent Cassel. Unfortunately, “L’Appartement” fans will likely feel as though they’re seeing a good play enacted by a sub-par touring troupe, while even virgin viewers will detect that “Wicker Park’s” narrative intricacies are superior to its lackluster performances. Dumped by MGM into the sluggish Labor Day weekend frame, pic’s presence in theaters should amount to little more than an advertisement for its DVD release.

Among the most absorbing and ingeniously constructed thrillers in years, writer-director Gilles Mimouni’s “L’Appartement” was tapped for a Hollywood redo almost immediately, but then entered into a torturous development process that saw multiple helmers (Joel Schumacher, Joan Chen, Danny Cannon) and stars (Brendan Fraser, Freddie Prinze Jr., Paul Walker) swing through a revolving door of commitment. Having now finally made its way before the cameras, pic’s story emerges remarkably well preserved, as screenwriter Brandon Boyce (“Apt Pupil”) has approached his source material with a don’t-fix-it-if-it-ain’t-broken philosophy.

Young investment banker Matthew (Josh Hartnett) is newly engaged to his boss’ sister (Jessica Pare). But, on the eve of an important business trip to China, he thinks he catches a fleeting glimpse of his former girlfriend, a dancer named Lisa (Diane Kruger), when he’s in Bellucci’s. He abruptly cancels his China trip, and, telling nobody except for his best friend (Matthew Lillard), proceeds to search for the woman who broke his heart.

This is made somewhat easier by the fact that Lisa (if it is indeed she) forgot the key to her room at the Drake Hotel in Bellucci’s phone booth. So, Matthew begins following Lisa’s breadcrumb trail while flashbacks show the two former lovers’ brief history together.

Two years earlier, he spied her from the window of his then-job in a camera store, and fell in love at first sight. A passionate fling ensued. But then, just as quickly as she appeared, Lisa was gone.

Back in the present, Matthew has tracked Lisa to what he believes is her apartment, but the occupant turns out to be a different girl (Rose Byrne, in the part originally played by Romane Bohringer), who says her name is Lisa and even wears the same shoes as the Lisa from his past.

Mistaking Matthew for an intruder, this new Lisa initially threatens to call the police, but then, upon hearing his story, feels sorry for him and even comes on to him.

One of the cleverest things about Mimouni’s script and Boyce’s exceedingly faithful (save for a tacked-on Hollywood ending) adaptation is the way pic’s second half jumps back and forth in time and shifts between various characters’ points-of-view, until finally the disparate pieces of the pic’s fragmented puzzle come together. And while cynical viewers will no doubt suggest that pic’s entire mystery could be remedied with a single e-mail or cell phone call, the same might be said for “Vertigo,” and there’s something refreshing and timeless about the way “Wicker Park” allows its characters to rely on their own wits rather than those increasingly common technological aids.

But all of this was more enjoyable when Bellucci, Cassel and Bohringer were the stars. Hartnett is overly methodical here as Matthew, and Kruger, as in “Troy,” is beautiful but lacking in dramatic intensity. Of the principals, only Byrne (also in “Troy,” as Briseis) fares reasonably well, while it’s the energetic Lillard who juices the movie up so much whenever he’s on screen that one ends up wishing there was more of him.

Pic’s Scottish director, Paul McGuigan (“Gangster No. 1,” “The Acid House” and “The Reckoning”) cribs most of his moves from Mimouni’s playbook, adding some Richard Lester-ish split-screen and fast-motion effects. Tech aspects are mostly solid, though pic never quite belies the fact that it was predominately filmed in suburban Quebec, with some Windy City location work done to help fill in the blanks.

Wicker Park

Production

An MGM release of an MGM Pictures and Lakeshore Entertainment presentation of a Lakeshore Entertainment production. Produced by Andre Lamal, Marcus Viscidi, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi. Executive producers, Georges Benayoun, Gilles Mimouni, Henry Winterstern, Harley Tannenbaum. Directed by Paul McGuigan. Screenplay, Brandon Boyce, based on the motion picture "L'Appartement," screenplay by Gilles Mimouni.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Peter Sova; editor, Andrew Hulme; music, Cliff Martinez; music supervisor, Liza Richardson; production designer, Richard Bridgland; art director, Pierre Perrault; set decorator, Ginette Robitaille; costume designer, Odette Gadoury; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrick Rousseau; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Douglas Murray; visual effects supervisor, James McQuaide; visual effects, Luma Pictures; assistant director, Pedro Gandol; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood; Canadian casting, Andrea Kenyon, Randi Wells. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Los Angeles, Aug. 24, 2004. (In Montreal World Film Festival -- competing.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Matthew - Josh Hartnett Alex - Rose Byrne Luke - Matthew Lillard Lisa - Diane Kruger Daniel - Christopher Cousins Rebecca - Jessica Pare Jeweler - Vlasta Vrana

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