As one who recently had to go shopping for an engagement ring myself, I had to sympathize with Matthew, the character played by the once-ubiquitous heartthrob Josh Hartnett in Wicker Park. As the film begins, Matthew is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend, who also happens to be his boss's sister, and one of the first things we see him do is step inside a jewelry store and ponder his indecision as he is offered a choice of three rings. As one who dislikes shopping in general, even when the stakes are pretty small, I can identify; it took me a bit of effort to set aside the daunting significance of what I was doing—the knowledge that the piece of metal I picked could very well sit on my fiancée's hand for the rest of her life—and narrow my own options down to a single, straightforward purchase.

Diane Kruger plays the role of Lisa

Diane Kruger plays the role of Lisa

I assume I survived the experience because the infinitely more important decision—whom to marry—had already been settled. (That, plus I had help; my intended gave me very specific tips regarding what to look for.) Matthew, however, is undecided on that point, too. The three rings, it soon becomes clear, symbolize the larger commitment issues that he will face over the course of the film, as he discreetly sets aside his present relationship to pursue one or two other romantic options.

It's not quite as sleazy as it sounds; in fact, once you know where Matthew is coming from, you really can't blame him, at first. One day on a business trip, while dining at a posh restaurant with his girlfriend (Jessica Paré), his boss, and a couple of clients, he overhears a woman in a phone booth, and he assumes she must be an old flame of his named Lisa (Troy's Diane Kruger). In flashbacks, we will learn that Matthew and Lisa once had a passionate affair, which ended abruptly and mysteriously; his subsequent love life has been haunted by the fact that his greatest relationship ended without proper closure. But the woman bolts from the restaurant before Matthew can determine that she is, indeed, who he thinks she is; and so, obsessed with the possibility that he might be able to pick up this loose thread, or at least tie it off, before he commits himself to someone else, Matthew stays behind in Chicago to look for this mysterious woman, while his girlfriend thinks he is on a four-day trip to China.

Wicker Park is one of those films that feels more interesting than it probably is, thanks to its complicated flashback structure, which interrupts Matthew's quest for Lisa every now and then to tell us the parallel story of how he met her, dated her, and then lost her two years before. The mental exercise of fitting the scenes in chronological order and guessing how the gaps will be filled obscures the fact that we know very little about their relationship or why we should care whether it ever resumes. This is also one of those coincidence-filled films in which colliding strangers are connected by fewer degrees of separation than they know, while old friends pass each other in the street without realizing it. In addition, the story takes an unexpected turn about halfway through; suffice to say that Matthew stumbles across a woman (Troy's Rose Byrne) who reminds him of Lisa, and who just might tempt him to give up the women of his past—and present—in favor of an entirely new future.

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When the film begins giving us flashbacks to earlier episodes in this other woman's life, it quickly becomes apparent that this story is as much hers as it is Matthew's, and the shift in narrative perspective nicely makes the point that our lives and our choices are always influenced by factors we not only do not control, but do not perceive. There is something vaguely Hitchcockian about all this. The doppelganger themes and extended flashbacks—of which there are a few too many—recall Vertigo, while the introduction of an alternative protagonist midway through the film brings Psycho to mind; there is even a bit of voyeurism a la Rear Window. But those who have followed director Paul McGuigan's films will also recognize the alternating between past and present from Gangster No. 1, while a sub-plot involving the interplay between theatre and real life recalls his most recent film, The Reckoning.

Alex (Rose Byrne) and Luke (Matthew Lillard)

Alex (Rose Byrne) and Luke (Matthew Lillard)

The true inspiration for Wicker Park, however, is L'Appartement, a French film written and directed by Gilles Mimouni in 1996, which was also one of the first movies to co-star real-life marrieds Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci. (The restaurant Matthew visits several times in Wicker Park is no doubt named Bellucci's in honor of the actress who first played Lisa—and who later played Mary Magdalene in The Passion of The Christ.) Mimouni's film was a seriously sophisticated European affair, skeptical of the possibility that true commitment is possible, but also very much aware of the dangers that come from a lack of the same. In addition, as its title indicates, the film was concerned with secrets and private spaces, and the significance of that moment when a couple decides to move in together. (Needless to say, these characters aren't the sort who wait for marriage.)

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Alas, McGuigan, working from a script by Brandon Boyce (Apt Pupil), tones some of these elements down, and somewhere along the way, the point of the film gets lost. Blink and you might miss a crucial subplot involving a married man who has an affair with Lisa and who may or may not have killed his wife in order to be with her; it's there in the opening scenes, but at some point, while we aren't looking, McGuigan just lets it drop. And the closing scenes are a complete cop-out; I'm all for the idea that love can conquer all, but a film needs to earn that theme, instead of just tacking it on at the end of a story that was pushing in a very, very different direction. To put this as simply and cryptically as possible, Wicker Park is like a European film with an American ending; just as Matthew can't make up his mind when it comes to rings, so too the filmmakers cannot decide what sort of story they want to tell, and as a result, the story they tell isn't really worth the telling.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. If you're single, do you believe there's a person who is "the one" for you? How would you know? Are relationships about following your feelings, or about making commitments—or a mixture of both? What sort of mixture?

  2. The jeweler tells Matthew, "In the end, it's not the eye that must decide." How do you think Matthew decides in the end who he should be with? Is he making a responsible decision?

  3. How should relationships begin? Could a Christian, say, approach a perfect stranger after spying them across the street, even without knowing anything about the other person's faith? What about spotting someone from afar at church?

  4. Matthew's friend says, "The moment you make a decision … along comes temptation." Do you agree? Or do we just notice temptation more after a decision? How do you deal with temptation? With jealousy?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Wicker Park is rated PG-13 for sexuality and language. All the main characters have multiple sex partners over the course of the film, but this is dealt with fairly discreetly; there are hints of nudity on a couple of occasions, but the explicit bits are kept just out of frame. The characters occasionally use four-letter words, too. Take the rating seriously; this is not a movie for kids, and arguably not even for teens.

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 09/09/04

"I'm all for the idea that love can conquer all," writes Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies), "but a film needs to earn that theme, instead of just tacking it on at the end of a story that was pushing in a very, very different direction."

He's talking about Paul McGuigan's film Wicker Park, an American remake of the French thriller L'Apartement, starring Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down), Diane Kruger (Troy), and Rose Byrne (I Capture the Castle). Chattaway concludes that "the filmmakers cannot decide what sort of story they want to tell, and as a result, the story they tell isn't really worth the telling."

Other religious press critics are troubled by the film's definition of "love."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The film is more about obsession than it is love. Furthermore, it is about how the two can get easily confused. As one of the characters explains, 'Love makes you do crazy things—things you would never imagine yourself doing—but you can't help it.' What the character describes isn't love. Whatever it is, it is debilitating, personally destructive and morally reprehensible. Love shouldn't make anyone do 'crazy' things. Love is the sanest and most selfless motivation that exists in this world."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "How much pity can we muster for a guy who is practically engaged to one woman, obsessed about reconnecting with another, and willing to—on a whim—sleep with a third girl he just met? These metropolitan twentysomethings are foolish, selfish and unethical. Since we can't empathize or identify with the principals, all that remains is trumped-up suspense, redundant action shown from multiple perspectives and a detached curiosity about what might happen next."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes that it "awkwardly shifts gears between romantic melodrama and suspense, neither providing enough emotional torque to power the story in its uphill battle against the overall lackluster material. The movie touches on themes of truth, trust, envy and self-image, but to characterize its treatment of these issues as anything but superficial would be a stretch."

Mainstream critics are dismissing the film as yet another unnecessary and poorly crafted remake.

Wicker Park
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for sexuality and language)
Directed By
Paul McGuigan
Run Time
1 hour 54 minutes
Josh Hartnett, Diane Kruger, Matthew Lillard
Theatre Release
September 03, 2004 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
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