When not even the promise of Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman as bitter enemies is enough to ratchet up the tension in a movie called Paranoia, you’ve got a problem. Despite the promise of watching these two actors wage technological war on each other, we’re instead handed a flat story with a charmless (and soulless) protagonist, and conflicting messages about ambition and privacy.
Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth), an ambitious young man working for a hot technology company, has big dreams of rising above his working-class roots and making waves in the business. Unfortunately, his ambition leaves him vulnerable to blackmail at the hands of his boss, Nicolas Wyatt (Gary Oldman), who recruits him into a corporate espionage scheme intended to steal tech from his rival, Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford). Along the way, Adam’s loyalties are tested, and he finds himself caught between the man he fears, the man he respects, and the FBI. It’s the age old story of a man who has to choose between the life he has and the life he thinks he wants.
Despite the faintly populist tones of Hemsworth’s opening narration, in which he laments the death of the American dream and the rise of greedy executives who earn their bonuses off the backs of decent, hard-working folks (like his dear old Dad), Paranoia comes across like a love letter to the surveillance state, and the increasingly slick and sexy technology that makes it possible. Set in a post-gentrification New York City that looks an awful lot like Philadelphia, velvet-rope nightclubs and financial district sterility are all seen as more desirable than quaint brownstones and dive bars. Meanwhile, the alleged romance between Adam and the intelligent, unattainable Emma (Amber Heard) feels about as genuine as an Instagram filter. Even the “Brooklyn” Adam returns to at film’s end (we are to know it’s Brooklyn because, y’know, there’s rock music playing in the background), is one of gleaming class and chrome office buildings.
Director Robert Luketic does his best to establish tension in the film’s middle acts, but for the most part, entire sections of the film just feel like an extended smartphone commercial. For a film entitled Paranoia, there’s remarkably little of it on display. After all, it’s not paranoia if people are really after you, and Adam’s suspicions are not only proven to him and the viewer (repeatedly), but the FBI is wise to the entire scheme, warning Adam to get out before it’s too late.
Adam’s father is there to witness this, and needs no further convincing. In fact, there’s never a moment where this young man is left to hang out to dry by his family, friends or the proper authorities (although he has no qualms about abandoning and betraying them). Later in the film, when Adam realizes his every move is being watched by hidden cameras in his multi-million dollar apartment, he trashes the place looking for the bugs. Never has the angry and desperate destruction of an apartment appeared less rock n’ roll.
Paranoia does have its moments, however few. Gary Oldman’s villainous Nicolas Wyatt is a study in gleeful amorality. At times a disinterested executive, at others, a venomous corporate supervillain, Oldman has what fun with the role that he can. Julian McMahon (remember him as Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four flicks? Anyone?) plays oily heavy, Miles Meachum, the guy who does the dirty work for Mr. Wyatt. Meachum lurks on the outskirts of scenes like Wile E. Coyote setting a trap. He’s more amusing than menacing, though, even with a silenced pistol in hand. Harrison Ford is always a welcome presence, and the fatherly, world-weary facade that his Jock Goddard projects is familiar enough, although his more hard-edged moments later in the film fall flat.
Which brings me to another major problem. There are no characters to root for in this film. All are either reprehensible, craven, or (at best) pitiable creatures. This can be excused when you’re dealing with a collection of charming, witty rogues, but these are mannequins. Adam and friends’ one act of “rebellion” involves using a corporate account to run up a $16,000 tab at a posh Manhattan nightclub. Even Gary Oldman’s Wyatt eagerly points out (in the preface to his blackmailing of Adam into a life of corporate espionage) that he could have used that money to pay his father’s hospital bill. There are four females in the entire film: one disappears entirely within fifteen minutes while the other becomes the comic-relief bartender girlfriend of Kevin (Lucas Till). Embeth Davidtz phones it in as Judith Bolton, Mr. Wyatt’s eeeeee-vil personal assistant, and Amber Heard’s character exists solely so that Adam can lift her fingerprints and swipe her phone in order to gain access to the super-secret smartphone that he must steal on behalf of Wyatt. Hilariously, the phone is lit and displayed like the idol in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
What are the messages of Paranoia? “Greed is good?” Cooperate with the federal government and they’ll cut you a deal? Trust the FBI? If you’re an ambitious woman working for a crooked, high-powered asshole, you may be fortunate enough to find another job working for another crooked (albeit significantly more attractive) high-powered asshole? There is no mention of using technology to make the world a better place or to ease the suffering of others. At best, it may have a military application. But for the sick? The poor? Sorry, folks. You’re out of luck.
However, with all of Paranoia’s shortcomings, perhaps the biggest comes in a rather unexpected way. Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Adam’s working-class, emphysema-stricken father, is a blue collar dude through and through. To illustrate this, the filmmakers never depict him without a well worn baseball cap. The problem is that in some scenes it’s a Mets hat…in others, it’s an equally weather-beaten Yankees cap. This is either an unforgivable continuity error, or an uncharacteristically subtle way for the filmmakers to indicate that the lovable old scamp is more than he appears. After all, as any New Yorker can attest, people who claim to root for BOTH New York baseball teams simply aren’t to be trusted. Perhaps there’s a deeper message here after all, and maybe Paranoia deserves another look…Nah.