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With: Bill Pullman, Aaron Stanford, Agnes Bruckner, Sandra Oh, Dylan Baker, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Marianne Hagan, Paz de la Huerta, Jamie Harris, William Ryall, Daniel Handler, P.J. Brown
Written by: Daniel Handler
Directed by: Curtiss Clayton
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and language
Running Time: 100
Date: 09/06/2003

Rick (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wicked 'Rick'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It doesn't matter whether local author Daniel Handler writes under his own name, or that of his bestselling children's book alter ego Lemony Snicket. All of his work has in common a cheerfully, viciously dark -- yet brainy -- sense of humor. In essence, he's like a Roald Dahl for a frightening new millennium. Under his real name, Handler has now created a very funny, very dark and very clever new film called Rick, a tale of the corporate id gone wild that promises to upset even the most jaded and hardened of sensibilities. Rick will no doubt fall between the cracks while Handler's other new film, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events bulldozes over everything with a Disney-sized ad campaign. Yet, Rick will offer the perfect antidote for anyone who comes out of Snicket with an acute sense of overkill.

Like Handler's second book, Watch Your Mouth, the multi-layered Rick is heavily rooted in opera. It also takes place at Christmas, giving a dark tinge to the holiday season that makes last year's "Bad Santa" look positively jolly. Rick O'Lette (Bill Pullman) -- whose name and character are meant to resemble Verdi's Rigoletto -- works in a strange, baroque office building, and tussles on the floor with his boss, Duke (Aaron Stanford), who is half Rick's age. Rick clearly despises everything in his life and wonders what happened to the nice guy he used to be. At home, Rick has a tentative relationship with his gorgeous teenage daughter Eve (Agnes Bruckner). Eve enters internet chat rooms as ViXXXen, teasing a frequent visitor named BigBoss -- who is really none other than Duke. One night after work, at a creepy bar laden with video cameras and monitors, Rick randomly meets an old classmate, Buck (Dylan Baker), who has a mysterious business proposition for Rick that could change his life.

Directed by Curtiss Clayton (a former editor on Gus Van Sant films, making his directorial debut), Rick never missteps. The film's neo-New York is swathed in perpetual darkness and cold, and the old-fashioned "Barton Fink"-like production design clashes with newer agendas, like the video bar and the internet chat room. Clayton coaxes pitch perfect performances from his remarkable cast, notably Pullman in a rare leading role, who draws up his usual aw-shucks manner into a tight bundle of nervy fits. Rick is a jerk, refusing to buy a $10 chocolate bar for charity from the receptionist and smirking with contempt at those who did. Yet Pullman adds a dash of doubt that makes the character fallible and human. A remarkable supporting cast suits Rick nicely, including Agnes Bruckner (so memorable in last year's Blue Car) and, of course, mealy Dylan Baker (Happiness) who enjoys his dark power trip. The great Sandra Oh (Sideways) plays a put-upon worker bee who gets the full brunt of Rick's cruelty and issues a curse on him, setting the whole plot in motion.

Rick may cross a line with more delicate viewers, stepping bravely from black comedy into pure blackness. Even the final image of an elevator door closing has a sinister hilarity to it, as if God Himself were admiring His own random cruelty.

(This review also appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.)

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