Dir: Steven Schachter. Canada. 2008. 98mins.
Completing an informal trilogy of Sundance titles about the making of movies (following Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind and Barry Levinson's What Just Happened'), Steven Schachter's The Deal is erratic and paper thin. Not a moment of it rings particularly true, and it never gathers the fluency and bounce of the best screwball farces.

The movie's fairly light and relaxed on its feet, which makes it simultaneously easy to take though also rather disposable. The theatrical debut of Schachter following a long string of credits in television, the director and his star and collaborator William H. Macy have adapted Peter Lefcourt's novel. The story concerns a down on his luck producer who finds redemption in an improbable historical project while trading romantic fireworks with the beautiful and headstrong studio executive assigned the project. Meg Ryan plays the studio executive and she invests the role with her customary rapt timing and exquisite comebacks.

The movie debuted in the premiere section at Sundance, and the movie's distributor requires both finesse and a hard sell to ratchet up theatrical prospects. For all the problems of the Levinson film, it has the requisite above the line talent to push. Macy's more of a character actor and Ryan is far removed from high performing When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. The material feels closer to television, or like a low budget variation of the forlorn side of Hollywood, like Barry Primus's Robert DeNiro film Mistress. Television's probably the best platform to recoup its apparent modest costs. Internally the movie is best suited for English-speaking markets.

Producer Charlie Berns (Macy) is on a bleak downward spiral. Broke and cut off from his family (his daughter has pointedly refused to invite him to her recent wedding), the suicidal producer's saving angel is his nephew Lionel (Ritter). He's a screenwriter determined to push his historical drama about the 19th century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Charlie seizes on the industry news that converted black action star Bobby Mason (LL Cool J) is seeking out Jewish material. Playing off the vanity of a Hollywood rabbi (Gould), Charlie creates a palpable buzz and orchestrates a feeding frenzy from the studios that results in a go project set to shoot in the South African desert.

Like Levinson's movie, the result is both choppy and relentless. It hurtles from moment and moment, trying to illustrate the insanity and desperation of the business. The movie within the movie is colourless and dull. The movie's tone is brighter than the sun, negating the darker and less amiable touch necessary to give the pop material the kick of recognition. The rap star LL Cool J brings the requisite combination of flair and vanity, issuing just the right mixture of the cool and the over the top self-righteous. Unfortunately, his character is dispatched and with his disappearance from the scene the movie losses any edge or humour.

The movie's final third contrives all manner of the strange and perverse befalling the filmmakers. Ultimately the subplots and antics of the industry prove wholly secondary to the emotional and sexual chemistry of the two leads. Macy's better at the low end desperation and comic foil than romantic lead. Macy's protean sad sack does not really mesh with Ryan's glamorous executive. Furthermore Ryan struggles to find the right mixture, the sharp businesswoman undone by her inexplicable attraction to the rogue producer. Atom Egoyan cinematographer Paul Sarossy tries vainly to bring some visual snap and precision to the work, an effort too often defeated by Schachter's cramped and boxy staging.

Production companies
Peace Arch Entertainment
Dogpond/Syndnyk Works
Union Square Entertainment
Muse Entertainment

International sales
Peace Arch Entertainment
(1) 310 450-1711

Executive producers
Gary Howsam
Lewin Webb
Jason Bark
Matt Lane

Michael Prupas
Irene Litinsky
Keri Nakamoto

William H. Macy
Steven Schachter,
from the novel by Peter Lefcourt

Director of photography
Paul Sarossy

Production designer
Guy Lalande

Matt Friedman
Susan Maggi

Jeff Beal

Main cast
William H. Macy
Meg Ryan
LL Cool J
Jason Ritter
Elliott Gould
Fiona Glasscott