During a mundane suburban morning in "Derailed" - a scene that comes early, before all the deception, infidelity and violence that's in store - Clive Owen's character helps his preteen daughter with her book report over cereal and juice at the breakfast table.
"The author intrigues the reader by twisting the narrative so you never know what's coming next," he dictates as she scribbles away.
Clearly "Derailed" is trying to intrigue us with twists so that we never know what's coming next - except we do know, because the twists are pretty obvious, pretty quickly.
Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, in his first English-language film, is trying hard to be Alfred Hitchcock - or at least Adrian Lyne, the director of "Fatal Attraction," which "Derailed" resembles stylistically and thematically. (Cinematographer Peter Biziou also shot Lyne's "Unfaithful" starring Diane Lane, and "Derailed" is similarly slickly greenish-gray.)
The main thing Hafstrom is missing, though, is subtlety. Everything is big, loud and in-your-face; the villain can't even enter a scene without a blast of foreboding music accompanying his arrival.
At the start, though, Owen as ad executive Charles Schine meets Jennifer Aniston's Lucinda Harris, a beautiful, flirtatious financial analyst, while commuting to work in Chicago. They are literally strangers on a train when she volunteers to pay his $9 ticket once he realizes he's out of cash (which seems like a plot contrivance to introduce them, which indeed it turns out to be).
Both are married - though not entirely happily. Both have young daughters - and Charles' girl is sick with diabetes, which puts further strain on his marriage to schoolteacher Deanna (Melissa George). Soon lunches lead to afterwork drinks, leading to a tryst at a seedy hotel.
If "Derailed" had just been a drama about their affair and its consequences, it would have been fine. But just as they're about to get hot and heavy, in bursts Vincent Cassel as a generically menacing Euro baddie named LaRoche. He pistol whips Charles, steals their money, then proceeds to repeatedly rape Lucinda as Charles lies bloody and half-conscious on the carpet (something we really didn't need to see or hear).
Charles insists they go to the police; Lucinda refuses because she wants to protect her family. The whole ordeal appears to be over until the phone rings and it's LaRoche, demanding that Charles pay him $20,000, then $100,000, or he'll expose the affair and ruin his life.
Nothing Charles does satisfies his arbitrarily single-minded tormentor, working with the help of a sidekick played by rapper Xzibit. LaRoche even shows up at Charles' house, pretending he's a business associate and cozying up to his wife and daughter with coffee and polite conversation. (Glenn Close did the same thing in "Fatal Attraction" - you practically expect him to blurt out, "I'm won't be ignored, Dan.")
The predictability of Stuart Beattie's script (based on a novel by James Siegel) might have been more tolerable if everyone in the film hadn't been so distractingly miscast. Owen is at his most magnetic when he's brooding ("Closer"), kicking butt ("King Arthur") or both ("Croupier"). His name wasn't bandied about as a James Bond successor for nothing. Here he's stuck playing the scared, victimized shlub, and it's no fun to watch.
Aniston, for all her good looks and charm, is hard to accept as a seductive femme fatale. While she played against type to suprisingly believable effect in "The Good Girl," she's just not va-va-voomy enough for this role; it doesn't help her cause that her character is so woefully underdeveloped.
And Cassel is so over-the-top in heavily accented English, he's practically a cartoon character. Like Owen, he's also been more effective in a better thriller - namely the French "Read My Lips" from 2002. Here, demanding zee monee as he stalks Owen's character by cell phone, it's as if he's channeling Pepe Le Pew.
"Derailed," a Weinstein Company and Miramax Films release, is rated R for strong disturbing violence, language and some sexuality. Running time: 105 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.