Throughout his career, director Paul Verhoeven has challenged audiences with his films. His Dutch dramas in the early 1980s, “Spetters” and “The Fourth Man,” showed his penchant for portraying tricky and erotic queer sexuality. His subsequent Hollywood films,
“RoboCop,” “Starship Troopers,” and “Hollow Man” showcased his talents for violent science fiction. And Verhoeven will forever be associated with two films that polarized the LGBT community: “Basic Instinct,” which drew angry pickets for what was seen as an anti-lesbian portrayal of a bisexual murderess, and “Showgirls,” a camp extravaganza that has become a cult favorite.
With his new film, “Tricked,” Verhoeven challenges himself as he “steps into the unknown.” Working from Kim van Kooten’s four-page script, the filmmaker “crowdsourced” the story, with audience members — Dutch television viewers who had seen a four-minute filmed treatment of the story — coming up with “what happens next.” It is not quite a “choose your own adventure” approach, but rather, a process Verhoeven describes as using “the wisdom from the crowd.” Viewers will decide how insightful Verhoeven’s collaborators were.
“Tricked” opens with a 30-minute documentary entitled “Paul’s Experience” that emphasizes Verhoeven’s excitement about making a film where “you don’t know what happens.” One drawback, he admits, is that the actors are also unprepared and are limited in their ability to get into character.
Novel approach tames Paul Verhoeven’s style, though director’s skill shines through
In the behind-the-scenes clips that comprise the first third of “Tricked,” Verhoeven talks at length, but not in-depth, about the logistics involved in making the film. He describes finding the locations, shooting, and editing, and he lauds what he describes as an amazing cast and crew who taught him so much. All this comes off as PR posturing, especially when Verhoeven goes on to concede the burdens of creating a script by reading hundreds of pages several times to find the story he eventually filmed.
“Paul’s Experience” will have many viewers anxious to see the 55-minute film that follows, though the documentary lead-in reveals elements of the story that might have worked better if they had been a surprise.
When “Tricked” itself begins, Remco (Peter Blok), a businessman, is celebrating his 50th birthday. Merel (Gaite Jansen), who is best friends with his daughter, Lieke (Carolien Spoor), unexpectedly arrives at the party. So, too, does Nadja (Sallie Harmsen), who is eight months pregnant. Is the baby Remco’s? So begins one narrative thread that leads to blackmail and other bad behavior.
The B-story has Remco being pressured by his business associates, Wim (Jochum ten Haaf) and Fred (Pieter Tiddens), to sell their failing company to the Chinese. Remco has power of attorney for the shares owned by his wife, Ineke (Ricky Koole). But is the deal a good one?
Verhoeven plays up the soap-opera qualities of these two parallel narratives, and the crowdsourced screenplay makes for dramatic climaxes unfolding every five minutes that suggest a drama greater than what the film ends up being. In “Paul’s Experience,” Verhoeven insists the process “forces you to be creative,” but in fact the characters are given little to do beyond keeping up with the beat of the script-by-committee. Every action on screen seems calculated, from Merel baring her breasts for a photo to a discovery that Lieke makes regarding Nadja.
This is not to say that the film, contrived as its plot may be, is not entertaining. The title is something of a spoiler and “Paul’s Experience” presents one reveal, but viewers will watch closely at each scene for clues about how things might play out. Arguably, many might imagine a better movie in their own mind — anticipating, say, a more explicit sex scene between two characters who meet for a hotel-room tryst or a lesbian relationship for the chummy Lieke and Merel. Audience may also dream up more inventive power plays among the characters.
As it is, “Tricked” fails to generate the tension and excitement one might expect from bad boy filmmaker Verhoeven; it’s as if he’s been tamed here. This film should have been naughtier. Still, even during a climatic moment where viewers know a character’s next move, an element of shock is delivered.
The crowdsourcing conceit is not completely without merit. “Tricked” shows how filmmaking is a collaborative experiment — sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The piecemeal assembly of the material might have dampened Verhoeven’s directorial flourishes, but he still manages to create a brisk hour of entertainment and coax bright performances from an ensemble cast of actors hobbled by playing one-dimensional characters.
In “Paul’s Experience,” Verhoeven seems happy with the end result. Audiences may be less pleased. Whatever Verhoeven has achieved here, it is well short of a triumph.
TRICKED | Directed by Paul Verhoeven | Kino Lorber | In Dutch with English subtitles | Opens Feb. 26 | Cinema Village, 12 E. 12th St. | cinemavillage.com