Cinema Signal:

Conspiracy of Fools:
A True Story

. "The Deal"

It's an old adage that you "write what you know about," which seems very much the case here. First-time writer Ruth Epstein is a 9-year veteran investment banker with Wall Street's Goldman Sachs. As a legal and financial negotiatiator, she knows mergers backwards. What she doesn't seem to know is how to translate the language of high stakes finance into drama.

Most of us couldn't tell the difference between a back end hedge and a back hoe. So, when Delaney & Strong's hot shot investment banker Tom Grover (Christian Slater) is asked to manage a Russian oil company called Black Star in a $20 billion sale to Condor Oil & Gas and its CEO Jared Tolson (Robert Loggia), which promises to alleviate an energy crisis (and save his company), the technical details flew way over my head. Talk about takeovers. This is a case of dialogue taken over by finance-speak. The discussion is about as clear as, well... a barrel of crude.

A struggle between competing forces and political interplay shines through the morass, and we detect that Tom is up against a global conspiracy and a Russian mob. Though we want to bond to this guy, the part, and Slater's performance, generates all the sympathy of a legal contract. Salvaging the operation is tree-hugger Abbey (Selma Blair), whom Tom's been trying to recruit. She seeks career advice from her Harvard professor Roseman (John Heard), and he's just fine with his protege's readiness to apply her ecological interests within the austere corridors of an oil conglomerate.

When an executive of Condor is killed, we start to appreciate the stakes involved and grasp that maybe there's some drama being pumped to the surface. In a strategy of co-opting a potential enemy of the deal, CEO Tolson hires Tom to evaluate his company's bid. But this doesn't go down well with Tom's boss, steel-jawed Hank (Colm Feore), furious that Tom would work for the other side.

At this late stage of the game, the vixenish Anna (Angie Harmon) is introduced as a femme fatale with designs on handsome Tom who has, unfortunately for her, begun to relate to the allures of his laid-back recruit. This competitive love angle is explored like a newly opened tract of Alaska's Anwar Preserve, with sweet Abbey getting the sooty end of the deal. Until, that is, Tom catches on that Anna is a corporate spy (with a Russian accent out of the Comedy Store) engaged in seduction and espionage. The time it takes him to reach this insight tests our patience, but we breathe a sigh of relief when he rejects the temptress and gets it on with the gal we've been rooting for.

Blair's casually animal appeal comes through despite some wickedly stiff, erratic direction by co-producer Harvey Kahn) and she readily becomes the only emotional connection on the patch. She's a welcome balance to Slater, whose serious concerns as the third co-producer on the film (alongside Epstein and Kahn) leak into his mostly dour performance. One might think that the principals who put this dry well together were fueled more from mutual need to make a movie than from a gusher of talent. If only someone on the team had a clue that a re-write was as essential as the cleanup of an oil spill.

Know-how is provided by cinematographer Adam Sliwinski's capable, bigscreen look and score by Christopher Lennertz to match.

I think it's fair to say that most people's closest experience with oil contracts takes place at the pump. The alleviation of an energy crisis in a dramatic thriller context, is a promising prospect. Considering current operations in the middle east, the highest barrel prices in history, and a constant threat of shortages, the time is ripe for an oil story. And, why not have someone knowledgeable in the ways of Wall Street write it? This movie, muddled up by a smoke screen of authenticity and not enough humanity to make it compelling, tells us.

I hope someone comes up with a feature movie that does it better than this sloppy "Deal" and half as well as the documentary, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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