Hollywood addresses its favorite subject — again — in “The Deal,” holding a funhouse mirror up to itself for 100 minutes of grating insiders-only fun. Adapted from Peter Lefcourt’s novel, been-there showbiz satire begins with a joke about a rabbi, a producer and a recently converted black action star who come together to make a Jewish-themed blockbuster, with madcap results. Unfortunately, the characters seem to be doing all the laughing, while the general public has nothing to cling to but the horndog flirtation between mismatched leads William H. Macy and Meg Ryan — hardly ideal ingredients for mainstream success.
“The Deal” reverses William Goldman’s showbiz adage that “nobody knows anything” by introducing a suicidal Hollywood producer, Charlie Berns (Macy), who knows exactly how to play the system, turning the industry’s ignorance against itself. Interrupted in the midst of offing himself, Charlie takes the first script that comes along, a snoozefest about “Benjamin Disraeli and the tariff laws of 1876,” and manipulates the trades, the studios and a naive young writer (Jason Ritter) until it’s a $100 million go project set to shoot in South Africa.
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The only player shrewd enough to see through Charlie’s sham is development exec Deidre Hearn (Ryan, whose conspicuous efforts to make herself look young actually suit her character). She admires Charlie’s chutzpah even as she recoils at his constant sexual come-ons, which put a crude spin on their screwball badinage. For those who still see Macy as the pathetic cuckold he played in “Boogie Nights,” this transformation into salivating sex hound could take some getting used to.
Less of a stretch is LL Cool J’s tongue-in-cheek turn as a demanding action star, who agrees to play lead in the Disraeli project so long as it’s rewritten to feature plenty of kicking, flipping and killing (“Bobby Mason doesn’t do words,” Deidre explains). Convinced that “we could be doing some significant shit here,” Mason embraces the admittedly sub par script, and the production is off — until a radical political organization kidnaps the actor and derails the project.
With their leading man missing and their careers on the line, Charlie and Deidre quickly decide to relocate to Prague and make the original script without alerting the studio of their plans. Stranger things have happened, and, yet, thinly veiled kiss-and-tell stories (such as competing Sundance Premieres selection “What Just Happened?”) typically better satisfy starstruck auds’ appetite for inside gossip. Straight cynicism just doesn’t cut it.
Director Steven Schachter, a longtime cohort of Macy and David Mamet’s, manages to suggest a whirlwind globe-trotting experience although the entire pic actually was shot in South Africa. Elliott Gould gets laughs as the credit-hungry rabbi pulled in to consult on the film, although a few A-list celebrity cameos in the movie-star roles would have gone a long way toward completing the illusion.
Paul Sarossy’s lensing is generally unobtrusive, except during over-the-top movie-within-the-movie scenes.