Fair Game (PG-13)
Kimball's Peak Three
Once upon a time, Doug Liman was an exciting director. His break came in 1996, when he shepherded a young Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn to superstardom with Swingers, a nouveau-Woody Allen look at Los Angeles singles (written by Favreau). The film's electric cast and casual indie manner seemed so fresh at the time, and Liman rode the lightning in a bottle through to his follow-up, Go, a buried gem of a teen romp that was both sexy and square. Even his flawed action escapades — The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith — contained enough elements of Liman's playful giddiness to redeem their otherwise leaden plotting.
One outright stinker (Jumper) and the wreckage of several less-than-stellar TV-producing credits later, and Liman's childlike wonder and pure joy of storytelling seems to have vanished. His latest film, Fair Game, the tale of the Bush administration's outing of its own CIA spy, Valerie Plame, and the cover-up effort to discredit both Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a schmaltzy affair lacking narrative thrust or the slightest hint of humor.
Not that there's all that much to be humorous about in regard to the story, mind you: Wilson and Plame risked everything — their marriage, their children, their safety — for a country that sold them out in order to go to war. As political thrillers go, their true story is downright depressing.
Sean Penn plays Wilson, and he chews on the role like a play toy. Knowing his intense political leanings to the left, one can't help but sense how much he must relish the opportunity to play a righteously indignant, truth-telling hero who fought back against Dubya and FOX News. Naomi Watts brings the steely detachment as Valerie Plame, a preternaturally smart and brave operative trusted with the most classified information and missions at work and only partly present at home with their young children.
Both are pleasant to watch, especially Watts, with a guarded gaze that reads like her mind is always in six different places — namely the six or so parts of the world where she's in charge of undercover recon. But they are done a disservice by a screenplay (by unproven scribes "Jez" and John-Henry Butterworth) that defines them only by their frustrations, and by Liman's dreary camerawork. (He also did his own cinematography.)
As the tension escalates and the stakes ratchet up to the top of the command chain, a strange boredom kicks in, not just on the audience's part, but from behind the camera as well. Penn and Watts furrow their brows and bury their faces in their hands, but Liman seems to have gone to lunch.
The moment when Lewis "Scooter" Libby, embodied by a ludicrously (if deservedly) arch David Andrews, leaks Plame's name and job title to slimy journalist Robert Novak is played as a major betrayal, but feels more like an inconvenient distraction. When her husband takes to TV to defend them both, there's all the intrigue and curiosity of an afterthought, not a defining moment of the decade.
Perhaps the material was too dense for Liman's jittery lens, or maybe he's simply more interested in spies of the Coyote Ugly kind. (Liman executive-produces USA Network's tedious new show Covert Affairs.) Either way, one hopes Liman still enjoys his job at least as much as Plame and Wilson once enjoyed theirs.