There’s a great vintage “Saturday Night Live” sketch where host Kirk Douglas does a fake ad for the album “Kirk’s Greatest Kirks,” featuring the actor impersonating Kirk Douglas impersonators (Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, etc.). Doing so requires the actor to repeat his most famous movie lines in the hammiest and most overdone way possible.
“Passion” — now on-demand and hitting theaters Aug. 30 –is “De Palma’s Greatest De Palmas,” as director Brian De Palma regurgitates seemingly everything in his legendary bag of tricks.
Whether it’s the split screen, the tracking shot down a stairwell, the possibly-imaginary twin sister, the violent event that turns out to be a dream (or DOES it?), the flourish of Pino Donaggio’s score to underline a significant moment or the lipstick-lesbian flirtation, many of the trademark moves come out to play once again.
Trouble is, rather than feeling like a greatest-hits compilation, “Passion” smacks of self-parody; by the time De Palma makes his way to some intended-to-be-jolting final shots, I found myself laughing out loud at his shamelessness.
A remake of Alain Comeau’s 2010 “Love Crime” (which starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier), the English-language “Passion” stars Rachel McAdams as Christine, the boss of an American ad agency’s European office, and Noomi Rapace as Isabelle, her ambitious lieutenant.
When we first meet these two businesswomen, they’re giggling and snuggling like sorority girls — you know, the way women in advertising always behave. De Palma loves to frame two-shots of the blonde McAdams, dressed in crème or white, with black-clad brunette Rapace. He loves this a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot.
After Christine takes credit for Isabelle’s sassy cellphone ad, the giggles are over, as the two women start playing corporate chess against each other. Isabelle leaks the ad online, where it goes viral and allows her to claim ownership of it; Christine breaks up the affair between Isabelle and Dirk (Paul Anderson), who happens to be Christine’s boyfriend. And so it goes back and forth until something truly terrible goes down, and then De Palma throws twist after twist at us.
De Palma is, it should be noted, one of the masters of this sort of thing, even as recently as his underrated “Femme Fatale” (2002), a movie that genuinely kept audiences guessing. (That film also beats out “Passion” in its ability to stage Sapphic love scenes that don’t just feel like some straight guy’s fantasy.)
This time around, however, it’s pretty easy to see the sleight-of-hand coming, which makes it all the more stultifying when the movie stops for 10 minutes or so to explain how, ha ha, it was fooling you all along.
Now that De Palma has played the hits for a county-fair audience, let’s hope he can get a booking at a cool club that allows him to unearth the deep cuts from his legendary cinematic imagination. He’s too interesting and too important to spend the rest of his career repeating himself.