"The Deal" conveys an intriguing insider's view of the machinations of oil companies and the investment banks that serve them, until pulpy thriller plot distractions threaten to capsize the whole enterprise. Pic could tap into a vein of consumer anger at corporate arrogance along the lines of docu "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

At a moment when gas prices are on the uptick, “The Deal” conveys an intriguing insider’s view of the machinations of oil companies and the investment banks that serve them, until pulpy thriller plot distractions threaten to capsize the whole enterprise. Never entirely convincing yet always watchable, pic could tap into a vein of consumer anger at corporate arrogance along the lines of docu “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” especially in its June 17 opening platform in Democrat-leaning cities.

Writer-producer Ruth Epstein’s script packs an unusual amount of industrial data into the early sections, the result of a story developed and updated over a seven-year span and informed by Epstein’s years on Wall Street.

Background posits a three-year-long war between the U.S. and something called the Confederation of Arab States, effectively cutting off a key source of oil and prompting prices at the pump to reach $6 a gallon. Worse, it appears somebody is killing associates working for Condor Oil and Gas.

Business is down at Wall Street investment firm Delaney & Strong, and key player Tom (Christian Slater) is trying to attract Harvard business school recruits while handling his ex-wife’s alimony payments. He seems to charm tree-hugger Abbey (Selma Blair) into joining Delaney. Even her chummy Harvard career advisor (John Heard) urges her to join “the den of vipers,” with the idea of advancing her eco-friendly investment ideas.

As Abbey tries to adjust to her new surroundings, Tom is asked by Condor topper Jared Tolson (Robert Loggia) to evaluate the company’s takeover bid of Russian oil outfit Black Star. The guy who had been handling it was killed — and was an old pal of Tom’s.

Tolson’s gambit peeves Delaney’s snooty oil/gas expert Hank (Colm Feore), who senses Tom sneaking in on his turf. An elegantly staged sequence that recalls Max Ophuls has director Harvey Kahn’s camera waltzing around pic’s various personalities as they schmooze at an after-work bar, in an intricate study of how flawed people, policies, self-interests and secret arrangements drive big business. The political side of the equation is cleverly kept off-screen until the very end, but the sense that decisions of huge economic import are being made by sometimes callous, petty folks is possibly “The Deal’s” most troubling vision.

When the murky figure of Anna (Angie Harmon) enters the scene as a supposed amour of Tom’s, credibility begins ebbing, and pic flirts with becoming an unintentional spoof of corporate espionage thrillers. (Another lapse: A map shows Iran at the center of the Arab confederation, even though Iran is a non-Arab country.)

Love story for Tom and Abbey plays predictably. Blair can’t summon the needed emotional drive to most of her scenes with the invigorated Slater, who looks like he’s up to starring in a serious-minded film a la “The Contender.” Aces supporting cast includes Feore channeling Shakespeare for the corporate boardroom, Loggia oozing danger, (especially when he smiles), and Heard suggesting an academe’s comfort and distance from the battles of business.

Locations, largely lensed in Vancouver, cleverly indicate a bustling Gotham, with skilled help from production designer Andrew Deskin and d.p. Adam Sliwinski.

The Deal

Production

A Front Street Films release of a Myriad Pictures presentation of a Front Street Films/Clean Slate Prods. production. (International sales: Front Street Films, Santa Monica.) Produced by Harvey Kahn, Ruth Epstein, Chris Dorr. Executive producers, Kevin Kennedy, David Leuschen, Christian Slater. Directed by Harvey Kahn. Screenplay, Ruth Epstein.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Deluxe prints), Adam Sliwinski; editor, Richard Schwadel; music, Christopher Lennertz; music supervisor, Chris Violette; production designer, Andrew Deskin; art director, Kristina Lyne; set decorator, Ian Nothnagel; costume designer, Katia Stand; sound (Dolby Digital), Philip MacCormick; sound designer, Kris Fenske; associate producers, Michael Carlin, Sheri W. Elowsky, Bernadette Meyers; assistant director, Robert Lee; casting, Shani Ginsberg, Jakki Fink, Lindsay Chag, Audrey Skalbania. Reviewed at Writers Guild Theater, Beverly Hills, May 11, 2005. (In Cannes Film Festival -- market. Also in AFI Los Angeles, Hollywood film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 107 MIN. (English, Russian dialogue)

With

Tom - Christian Slater Abbey - Selma Blair Prof. Roseman - John Heard Anna - Angie Harmon John Cortland - Kevin Tighe Janice - Francoise Yip Shane - Jim Thorburn Hank - Colm Feore Jared Tolson - Robert Loggia Jerome - Philip Granger

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