All of director John Badham’s well-honed technique can’t disguise the hollowness at the center of “Incognito,” a wannabe romantic thriller set in picture-postcard Europe that’s short on romance and even shorter on thrills. Weighed down by a charmless perf from Jason Patric as an art forger who’s double-crossed by his English clients, this Morgan Creek production, which bowed in the U.K. Nov. 14, looks set for a rapid trip to half-inch in mature territories. Warner Bros. release already has been pushed back to February Stateside, where ancillary also looms rosiest.
Patric plays Harry Donovan, a top-of-his-class faker who’s first seen being arrested in the U.K. in a newscast-style intro. Pic then flashbacks “four months earlier,” when Harry is hired in New York by a group of shady London art dealers to paint them a Rembrandt for $ 500,000. Despite pressure from his sick father (Rod Steiger) to abandon forgery and become a real artist, Harry eventually accepts the assignment.
He decides to create a Rembrandt that was lost 350 years ago while being shipped from Rotterdam to San Sebastian, Spain. As the portrait was described in records of the time as simply one of the painter’s blind father, Harry has considerable artistic freedom, so long as he gets the technique and materials right.
On a research trip to Paris, Harry literally bumps into art student Marieke (Irene Jacob), whom he first uses as an unwitting accomplice to steal some paint scrapings from a real Rembrandt and later beds in a picturesque little Seine-side hotel.
Action picks up momentarily when Harry relocates to Amsterdam, locks himself away in an attic, and sets about creating the forgery. In a slickly shot, extended montage, the film painstakingly supplies some fascinating detail about the forger’s craft — from procuring the right paints used at the time to the aging process of the canvas.
Main plot kicks in halfway, after Harry delivers the painting to his shifty clients but then finds them slow to pay up until they’ve fooled a group of experts in London. However, one of the mavens turns out to be Marieke, who’s no “student” but a highly regarded art prof and Rembrandt specialist. After she gives it the thumbs down, and Harry’s clients get even more nervous, a scuffle breaks out, a gun goes off, and Harry finds himself on the run from the English police, with Marieke as his initially unwilling hostage.
With the movie surprisingly at its best in the brief moments when Patric’s character is shown in the very act of creation, it’s in areas where Badham movies usually excel that “Incognito” hardly gets off the starting blocks. With no real action sequences — more a series of on-the-run close shaves — the drama should have been propelled by either the plot or the principals, but the former is unexciting and by the numbers (something about Harry’s clients double-crossing each other as well as him) and the actors resolutely fail to make the screen burn any brighter than one of the Dutch Old Master’s originals.
Patric, in an unsympathetic, self-obsessed role and totally lacking in charm or leading man presence, sets the tone for the movie, which may possibly have worked with a sense of humor, but never gets close in Jordan Katz’s dull script. Jacob, in another bad career decision, is little more than photogenic as Marieke , and strikes no onscreen sparks with her titular romantic partner.
Among the supports, Thomas Lockyer fares best as the chief villain among Harry’s clients, overacting only slightly less than veteran Ian Richardson, who turns up 80 minutes into the movie as a true-Brit prosecuting lawyer. Steiger’s few scenes as Harry’s emotional father are borderline embarrassing; English thesp Ian Holm cameos at start and finish as an oily businessman with a bad American accent.
Shot in England, the Netherlands and France, pic is never less than tasty to look at and well-tooled in all tech departments. True to form for this kind of old-fashioned, theme-park Europe movie, Blighty is all toffee-nosed Brits, colorful locals and red London buses, and Paris a town that Gene Kelly would have felt right at home in.