Genre movies often get described as disposable, but something as paper-thin as Paranoia isn’t even sturdy enough to warrant such a dismissive description. Based on Joseph Finder’s 2004 novel, this corporate thriller radiates noir-ish style so innocuously that it barely registers. People’s lives are put in danger, our main character runs the risk of losing his soul for his career aspirations, and yet nothing feels particularly urgent. In six months, you’ll catch 30 minutes of this movie on an airplane, be mildly engaged and then forget all about it for the rest of your life.
The films stars Liam Hemsworth as Adam, a hotshot New Yorker working at a top-flight tech company run by the snide, aloof Nicolas Wyatt (Gary Oldman). After being fired for mouthing off to his boss, Adam decides to blow what’s left of his discretionary cash at a high-profile club, racking up a five-figure bill. Annoyed with the kid but seeing an opportunity, Wyatt tells Adam that he can work off the debt if he does him a favor: infiltrate his competitor Jock Goddard’s (Harrison Ford) company and uncover what top-secret new smartphone he’s developing.
Paranoia’s premise screams out for the suspenseful touch of Alfred Hitchcock or the knotty plot machinations of David Mamet. Unfortunately, instead we have Robert Luketic, who’s directed everything from Legally Blonde to Monster-in-Law to 21. Give him credit for having eclectic tastes, but be warned that Paranoia feels like the work of a man trying very hard to exude an edgy attitude that doesn’t come naturally. Whether it’s Adam’s occasional fatalistic voiceover or the sleek, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil treatment of New York’s elite, the film swipes its ethos from every pulp thriller it can. But Paranoia is all surface, its sinister undertones and moral rot utterly ephemeral.
Speaking of surface, Hemsworth is an apt choice for the role of a would-be wheeler-dealer who discovers how quickly he’ll compromise his principles to get ahead. Tiring of toiling away at an entry-level job at Wyatt’s company, Adam is terrified of turning into his ill, working-stiff father (Richard Dreyfuss, essentially playing the Martin Sheen moral center to Hemsworth’s Charlie Sheen from Wall Street). Hemsworth possesses the correct chiseled handsomeness that the part requires, his blank ruggedness a mask that conceals his true intentions. But Paranoia doesn’t dig too deep into its characters, focusing instead on a rather tame plot where Adam quickly learns that spying on Goddard’s company isn’t a job that Wyatt will let him quit once he has misgivings. Adam gets pulled deeper and deeper into the feud between Wyatt and Goddard, but the stakes never seem too dire, even when cronies are pulling guns and Adam is running for his life.
While it’s easy to complain about thrillers that put too much stock in their elaborate twists and double-crosses, Paranoia may be that rare case in which the plot is stunningly straightforward. (Its greatest twist is that it keeps making you think it’s going to zig or zag but never does.) Luketic pays lip service to the idea of a new American Dream in which the rich get richer but the working class can never get ahead, but like just about everything else in Paranoia, it’s only ornamentation—an attitude to place into the frame that may catch on with the audience, but probably not. (Likewise, Junkie XL’s soundtrack raises the question: how close you can get to directly aping Drive’s propulsive score without drifting into straight plagiarism.)
Hemsworth’s supporting cast blends into the background, barely more expressive than the fast cars and spiffy gadgets. Amber Heard is all smoldering eyes as the token love interest, while Oldman is disappointingly restrained in a role that screams for the over-the-top shenanigans that were his hallmark in the 1990s. As for Ford, this is some of his best work in a while—a compliment that must be taken with several grains of salt considering the paucity of good performances he’s given recently and the relative anonymousness of this role. The blah title Paranoia is a damning indication of how generic the contents are, but it’s not even accurate: This movie doesn’t even muster the energy to give off a respectable paranoid vibe. Perhaps Moderately Distracting was already taken.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Robert Luketic
Writer: Jason Hall, Barry L. Levy (screenplay); Joseph Finder (novel)
Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Gary Oldman, Amber Heard, Harrison Ford
Release Date: Aug. 16, 2013