Wrong Number (2002)

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Canada, US / 97 minutes / color / Northern Eagle/Triton, Tsunami Dir: Richard Middleton Pr: Ken Nakamura, Tim Riley Scr: Richard Middleton Story: Lorna Lambert Cine: Walter Bal Cast: Brigitte Bako, David Lipper, Kane Picoy, Barry Blake, Eric Roberts, Cas Anver (i.e., Cas Anvar), Simon Peacock, Jo Marr, Karen Cliche, Chip Chuipka.

I went into this not expecting a huge amount but found it to be one of the more engaging neonoirs I’ve seen in a while.

Starting from the opening credits, our intermittent narrator is Josh Grey (Roberts), recently murdered by person or persons unknown. As he tells us,

“They say sometimes there are three sides to every story—his side, her side, and the truth. This is one of those stories.”

And he’s right. Even though we might expect him, as someone speaking from the afterlife, to know the truth of the matter, he’s guessing as much as the rest of us are as we watch a set of narratives in which it seems just about every narrator is an unreliable one.

Eric Roberts as Josh Grey.

Brigitte Bako as Dana Demotte.

Let me qualify that “set of narratives” remark. There are plenty of movies—a classic recent example is the wonderful À LA FOLIE . . . PAS DU TOUT (2002; vt He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not) starring the equally wonderful Audrey Tautou—in which we’re presented with first one and then another account of a sequence of events, the second account forcing us to radically reappraise our initial impression. In Wrong Number the variant accounts are presented almost as if part of a single narrative: we’re never quite sure who if anyone is the false narrator.

I should add that Wrong Number has a lot of the feel of a (very good) TV movie. But pay attention to the cleverness of the plot and the screenplay as you watch it, not the production standards, if you want to get the most out of it.

 David Lipper as the ever-unlikable Michael.

Inveterate womanizer Josh Grey is, at least in most estimations (including his own), the inspirational half of the partnership that set up the internet company Keep It Safe, now worth millions; the other half is creative beancounter Michael Bartlett (Lipper). It seems that, in order to raise the startup capital for Keep It Safe, Michael got in deep with some organized-crime figures, notably Thomas Pitrillo (Anvar). So, when journalist and family friend Karla Mackay (Cliche) of the World Post breaks it to Michael, Josh and Josh’s wife Dana Demotte (Bako) that her newspaper has been leaked details of how Keep It Safe has been frontloading its income to make it look as if the company is worth far more than it really is, there’s panic among the principals—primarily Michael, who realizes Pitrillo is not going to take kindly to losing, say, $150 million as the Keep It Safe shares inevitably crash.

Family friend Karla (Karen Cliche) brings the warning of the leak.

So Michael comes up with the great scheme of making it look as if Josh ran for the hills—well, some Caribbean tax shelter—with whatever could be quickly gotten out of the company, leaving Michael and Dana to carry the can.

Even better, from Michael’s point of view, if Pitrillo could be persuaded that Dana is in on Josh’s plan, and scheming to join him in the Caribbean . . .

Thomas Pitrillo (Cas Anvar) threatens Dana (Brigitte Bako) . . . or does he?

For the first part of the movie, as Detective Scott Stevenson (Picoy) and his far older, nearing-retirement partner Detective Anton Bijou (Blake) investigate, we assume that this is roughly the truth of what happened.

Bijou (Barry Blake, center) and Stevenson (Kane Picoy) question Dana (Brigitte Bako).

But then alternative narratives begin to intrude. Michael begins to claim that he and Dana were having an affair, and to our and the cops’ startlement she doesn’t deny this. We get two completely different takes on an exchange between Michael and Josh at the gun-range where they and Dana practice. In the first Josh rather romantically talks about how the secret to marriage is to be forever re-falling in love with one’s spouse. The second is entirely less starry-eyed:

Josh: “I’m paraphrasing here, but someone once said what a man wants in a wife is a gourmet in the kitchen, a lady in the living room, and a whore in the bedroom.”
Michael: “That sounds right.”
Josh: “That sounds wrong. What a man really wants is a whore in the kitchen, a whore in the living room, and a whore in the bedroom. The problem with that is, once you find a woman who’s comfortable with that, you’re going to roll over one morning and give her a big kiss and go, ‘Oh, my God. I’ve married a whore.’”

Dana (Brigitte Bako) competes with the boys at the shooting range.

So who did kill Josh? Is Dana the rather prim wife she seems or a predatory gold-digger who’s happily promiscuous behind her husband’s back? Does she so readily come on to Detective Stevenson because her marriage to Josh was for so many years loveless and she’s desperate for straightforward affection? Can anyone keep track of whose gun was where at what time? Is Michael quite the slimebag he seems, or more of a slimebag than that?

Right at the end of the movie, just as the rival narratives are resolving to form a singleton—it’s rather like the collapsing wavefronts of quantum theory—there are two twists. One of these I spotted right from the outset, so assume everyone else will too; the other came completely out of left field. I can quite imagine plenty of viewers will regard the latter as contrived; it worked for me, though.

Eric Roberts has surprisingly few moments of screentime, but handles his part well. David Lipper is as good as I’ve seen him. Barry Blake is splendid as the world-weary, grandisonian, soon-to-retire cop stuck with a youthful jerk partner; the banter between him and that partner, played by Kane Picoy, is painfully heavy . . . until we slowly cotton onto the fact that it’s almost part of the plot that this should be so.

Among the cast, though, the standout is Brigitte Bako, who gives a depth of character to Dana that on its own is well worth the price of admission. I should qualify that statement. For much of the movie I believed she was either phoning her part in or was simply a poor actor; it was only later on that I realized her seemingly flat performance, like so much of the rest of the movie, was really an exercise in hoodwinking the audience.

 Simon Peacock as Dana’s tame technogeek, Richard Gaines.

The bum Mr Sartain (Chip Chuipka) tries to blackmail Michael.

There are all sorts of other clever pieces of characterization—Chip Chuipka excels, for example, as Mr. Sartain, a bum who supposedly (and only supposedly!) has incriminating evidence against Michael but chooses to blackmail him rather than grass him out to the cops—but really, as noted, this is one of those movies you ought to go to for the skill of its plot and its screenplay. And, too, it has the confidence to give us not just one misleading nightmare sequence (she wakes! it was only a dream!) but two in a row; I very rarely get fooled by this particular gimmick, but I was this time.

All the way through Wrong Number I was pleasantly unsure as to what the truth of the tale really was. That’s the sign, I’d suggest, of a good neonoir.

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