Derailed: Thriller Starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston

In theory, “Derailed” contains most of the ingredients for a passably enjoyable psychological thriller: a workable if familiar concept of an adulterous husband and a femme fatale, both married; a screenwriter, Stuart Beattie, who has done credible crimers like “Collateral,” a Swedish director who showed craftsmanship in his Oscar-nominated film, “Evil,” and a handsome and talented actor, Clive Owen, on the verge of becoming a star.

In practice, however, each of these ingredients proves to be problematic. Long, tangled, and preposterously plotted, “Derailed” has somehow forgotten its raison d’etre: To thrill.
The two leads are miscast and mismatched. While it’s not easy to accept Owen as a flawed hero who masochistically gets more than he deserves, it’s impossible to accept girl-next-door Jennifer Aniston, a limited actress with a TV baggage, as an alluring dame-in-distress.

It doesn’t help that the actors are defeated by underdeveloped roles, and that Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom becomes the latest victim of a foreigner working in Hollywood.

We don’t expect anymore narrative logic from American thrillers, but we have the right to expect thrills and frills, some electric eroticism, or else the very foundations of the psychosexual thriller as a genre are shattered. Fritz Lang and Hitchcock understood the revelatory power of excitement of movies that burst against our nerves. “Derailed” begins by tickling our nerves, but then forgets to do the rest of the job. The yarn suffers from two major problems. It sets up situations but doesn’t deliver the payoffs, and it telegraphs them well in advance.

Lang pulled off this kind of mysteries with high style in his 1940s and 1950s noir classics, and so did Hitchcock in his “Wrong Man” scenarios, to which “Derailed” bears some thematic resemblance. Comparisons will also be made to the far superior “Fatal Attraction” and to “Unfaithful,” both directed by Adrian Lyne. Reversing the gender of “Unfaithful,” which boasted a wonderful performance from Diane Lane, “Derailed” is a dark cautionary tale about a husband who strays from his marriage and ends up suffering for it much more than he had anticipated.

An international production, “Derailed” is marred by the mix of its cross-cultural elements. The movie is directed by Swedish Mikael Hafstrom, making his Hollywood debut, and the cast features two European actors (the very British Owen, attempting an American accent, and the very French Vincent Cassel), two hip-hop artists (RZA and Xzibit) and one very American actress, Aniston, who seems unable to shake her TV image from “Friends.” The result is a mishmash of conventions, tones, and styles that lacks any distinctive identity or flavor.

Owen plays Charles Schine, a Chicago ad executive and family man saddled with troubles at work and at home. Going through male menopause, a mid-life crisis, Charles is losing the respect of his wife Deanna (Melissa George) and daughter Amy (Addison Timlin) and of his boss at the advertising firm where he works. Riding a commuter train, he meets Lucinda Harris (Aniston), an elegant business exec in spike heels. Their accidental but fatal train again evokes Hitchcock, this time “Strangers on a Train,” and also “Unfaithful,”

After some flirting, Charles and Lucinda begin to date and to confide in each other. We learn that, like Charles, Lucinda is caught in an unhappy marriage, and like him, she has a daughter. Just as they are about to consummate their relationship, however, a French gunman, LaRoche (Vincent Cassel), bursts into their motel room. After beating Charles and stealing his wallet, LaRoche forces himself on Lucinda, while Charles watches helplessly.

Terrified that the truth about their affair will be disclosed, the couple decides not to go to the police. Soon, however, LaRoche begins threatening Charles with blackmail demands that rapidly escalate from $20,000 to $100,000.
Unfortunately, the violent psycho LaRoche and his henchman Dexter (Xzibit) always have the upper hand and. Unlike Hitchcock’s thrillers, there’s never real tension or even temporary power balance between protagonist and villain.

Later, Charles’ decision not to go to the police begins to haunt him, and his efforts to fight back, which involve a former co-worker named Winston (RZA), lead to disastrous results. We have seen flawed heroes in noir, but not hapless ones like Charles, who’s unable to protect Lucinda, his family, or himself; he gets beaten in a manner that makes him look a masochist. Owen has played successfully morally ambiguous and flawed heroes in “Croupier,” “Gosford Park,” and most recently in “Closer,” for which he won an Oscar nomination, but the director makes little use of his natural charisma or strong physicality.

Aniston has an appealing TV personality, but, judging by her big-screen record, she may not have what it takes to become a leading lady, not to speak of playing a seductive femme fatale. Lacking the necessary look, Aniston gives such a pallid performance that it’s never clear what Charles sees in her.

The other element that “Derailed” shares with “Unfaithful” is cinematographer Peter Biziou, though you wouldn’t know it if you don’t stay through the end credits. An unimaginative piece of filmmaking, “Derailed’ doesn’t offer any pleasures of style. Artistically, the film is shapeless, and director gets little by way of menace or noirish atmosphere from either the back alleys of nocturnal Chicago or Charles’ workplace.

Both director and writer seem to have watched many crime-thrillers, for they fill their movie with references to other movies. Charles finds himself in a succession of Hitchcockian “Innocent Man Accused,” though without the humor, wit, or irony. Based on James Siegel’s novel, which I have not read, Beattie’s by-the-book script is too literate and not very skillful with the genre’s tricks. The plot’s few twists and turns are utterly predictable.

“Derailed” is a misshapen thriller that grinds on without ever being able to compensate for pathetic plot and underwritten characters. The picture goes from one location and characters to the next, and after a while the episodes become redundant. The seams always show and the clues plunk into place with such regularity that the whole thriller enterprise seem like an empty exercise.

The whole movie seems derailed. There my be something about the title, for the previous film called “Derailed,” a 2002 Jean Claude Van Demme actioner-thriller, was also a stinker.