There's something problematic about Charlie Berns, William H. Macy's character in The Deal. Macy's best characters, like those in Fargo, Boogie Nights, and Panic, are inherently decent people thrust into regrettable situations. They end up doing things they have no desire to do, but that fate has inextricably led them to. Charlie Berns, on the other hand, is an inherently terrible person thrust into a regrettable situation entirely of his own making.
He's a down-and-out Hollywood producer whose suicide is interrupted when his nephew Lionel (Jason Ritter) comes over to give him his screenplay, a boring arthouse movie about 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Charlie, who would've killed himself anyway, decides to go for broke; he hires a few hacks to rewrite it as an action movie, signs rap star Bobby Mason (LL Cool J) to play the very white Disraeli, and sets out to make the worst possible movie he can, all the while sexually pursuing a put-upon development executive (Meg Ryan).
Okay, no problems there. Macy's a good actor, and capable of playing most anything you could throw at him. In fact, the character and his situation are ripe for satire (the movie tries and fails in that regard, but more on that in a second). The problem with Macy's performance, and the reason the movie feels so disjointed, is that Macy doesn't seem able to play Charlie as anything but an inherently good guy who just needs to wash the slime off. Later in the movie, as Charlie romances Deidre, the Meg Ryan character, he is such a good guy that their chemistry salvages what's left of the picture. But the transformation is half-hearted, insincere; Macy, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Steven Schachter, never truly believes that Charlie's a jerk, and it comes off as a masquerade. If this were a Billy Bob Thornton role, I'm pretty sure he would've understood what to do. The man knows how to play douchebags.
But our failure to buy William H. Macy as a real bastard is far from The Deal's only problem. As I mentioned before, it fancies itself a Hollywood satire, and the premise is rife with opportunity. Not only is Bobby Mason a rap star action hero, he's also a rap star action hero who has recently converted to Judaism. He brings a mobile temple with him to the set, passes out yarmulkes emblazoned with "Bobby Disraeli: Freedom Fighter," and has his rabbi (Elliott Gould) made executive producer. This is all funny material, but the movie does nothing with it. The gags are amusing, but instead of playing up the absurdities, the movie supplies the punchlines and moves along. Elliott Gould, one of the best character actors in the world, is wasted. Macy must be a close friend of his.
It took forty-seven minutes for the movie to get a genuine laugh out of me (yes, I actually stopped to check), and it still makes me smile: Fiona Hicks (Fiona Glascott), heroine of the movie-within-the-movie, looks good with her shirt off but can't throw a grenade without looking like a fussy little girl. This, as the movie shows it, is not very funny. But the solution, which I will not reveal lest I spoil one of the movie's few good jokes, is hilarious. If the entire movie had this same kind of build-up and payoff, this would've been a good little industry jab.
But it doesn't, and it's not, and is also unwise enough to try to be a romantic comedy at the same time. Meg Ryan, who for a brief time was something of a romcom queen with hits like When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle, hasn't had much luck in the 21st century. She's been in bad film after bad film, and the only thing that keeps her afloat here is the same irrepressible charm she brings to every role. I don't necessarily take issue with the fact that The Deal wants to be a romance, but when the last half-hour of the movie has such a cute thing going between her and Macy, the filmmakers should've realized that this, and not the showbiz spoof, was the movie they wanted to make.
In all fairness to Ryan, it's also been a few years since I've seen a good William H. Macy movie. The fact that someone of his caliber actually helped think up this dud could be disheartening, but it also means that his next project has nowhere to go but up. IMDb says he's going to be playing the president in House of Re-Animator. Make of that what you will.
Making The Deal – Watch! as the film's stars spin their wheels for 17 minutes. Listen! as they describe the full plot of the movie you have just watched. Groan! as your life dwindles away. At one point, director Steven Schachter dissects the art of funny, before concluding, "I'm no joke scientist." At least he got that much right.
There's also the theatrical trailer, and a digital copy of the film, neither of which will be of much use to anyone who's seen it.
The Deal arrives on DVD January 20.