We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Andie MacDowell has a stand-in in Graeme Clifford’s Deception, but it’s not for nude scenes. It’s because the actress couldn’t climb all the way to the top of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, something her character does in order to watch the sunrise with a beau. This particular moment, representing as it does something both inherently ludicrous and grossly unrealistic, encapsulates the film’s essence rather nicely. (As well as being physically exacting, such a feat is surely the approximate equivalent of deciding to picnic in Lincoln’s lap down at the Memorial.) But Deception flaunts its far-flung locales—what the film’s gloriously idiotic press kit calls “the world’s most exotic cities”—for a reason: It has little else to flaunt. Director Clifford’s previous efforts have included films both respectable (Frances) and otherwise (Gleaming the Cube), and Deception is decidedly more in tune with the latter.
Traditionally, deception takes two, and in this case the pair in question is Los Angeles wife and mother Bessie Faro (MacDowell) and her handsome but perpetually insolvent husband, Johnny (Viggo Mortensen). Bessie is devastated when Johnny is killed in a fiery plane crash in Veracruz. Worse, she’s left with three kids and a big, cardboard box full of unpaid bills accrued by Johnny’s foundering airplane-salvage business. As if that weren’t enough, no sooner does Bessie take a Greyhound to Mexico to bury Johnny’s remains than she’s plunged into international intrigue.
At this point, the screenplay by Robert Dillon (who, tellingly, scripted Muscle Beach Party) and Michael Thomas zooms into total implausibility at warp speed. The glut of suspicious details that vie for Bessie’s attention in Mexico soon make it clear that her heretofore beloved husband was not all that he seemed. But Johnny is not destined to have the last laugh: Before heading back to LA, Bessie discovers a cache of encoded baseball cards that map his vast holdings in innumerable international banks. She also engages the romantic interest of Fergus Lamb (Liam Neeson), a debonair European philanthropist. (As Clifford explains in the press kit, the impetus for this last casting decision was an effort to “cast someone who looked good with Andie.” And who can dispute that logic as Clifford continues, “She’s quite a tall woman, but he’s taller.”)
Not only is Deception‘s plot improbable, its developments are presented as if the movie was designed as a teaching tool for a class in remedial film-viewing. Seldom are the plot elements of a thriller so inelegantly presented: Cretinous expository remarks like “This must be a code!” accompany occurrences great and small; a pair of (sinister two-tone, of course)shoes follows Bessie down the street to indicate that she’s being followed; every time she sees something that reminds her of something earlier in the film, it necessitates a full flashback to the earlier scene. But then, this may have been an intentional stylistic choice meant to echo Bessie’s own obtuseness. Only after she follows Johnny’s trail to Cairo (described by the press kit as “the mysterious crossroads of the East”) does Bessie find it odd that her husband christened their kids Niles, Alexandria, and Cleo.
Deception‘s unusually frequent incidence of shower scenes indicates that Bessie has exceptionally high standards of personal hygiene, but we don’t learn much else about her. Frankly put, Andie MacDowell isn’t the most convincing plucky blue-collar woman in cinema history. Deception‘s characterization of Bessie makes the most of MacDowell’s Southern accent, but the actress—who seems to have prepared for the part by studying Sally Field in Norma Rae—is unsuited to the role in most other particulars. And though the filmmakers costume her as tackily as possible, she still manages to look as if she’s wearing mink underwear.
The fact that Johnny is a pilot and that Bessie lives under the LAX runway, where jet fuel splatters onto her roses from above, provides a brief scatalogical metaphor for the nature of their relationship. In an early voice-over, Bessie tells how she wed Johnny even though the girls told her he was no good. But the psychologizing doesn’t stop there: Apparently drawing inspiration from Beauty and the Beast, the film suggests that Bessie married Johnny merely because he was the “most beautiful man I’d ever seen,” and reaped her just reward. This moralizing is all very well and good, but in order for it to have been borne out logically by the film, Bessie’s consolation prize, Lamb, should have been played by, say, John Candy. After all, Andie’s quite a tall woman, but he’s taller.