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MOVIE REVIEW

'Wicker Park' attraction is strange, enjoyable

Movies that are entertainingly nuts don't come around very often, and when they do they need to be given their due. "Wicker Park" is a hothouse romantic melodrama that wants to seriously mess with your mind, and who cares that it's never quite clever enough to fully turn the trick? The preview audience I saw it with hooted in disbelief at the outrageous bits, then happily dug in to see what would happen next.

It's the kind of movie where even the flashbacks have flashbacks. Matt (Josh Hartnett) is a handsome Chicago yuppie engaged to a wealthy beauty (Jessica Pare) but still obsessed with the one that got away: Lisa (Diane Kruger), a dancer with a vague continental accent that signals either joie de vivre or mal de mer. On the eve of leaving for a business meeting in Shanghai, Matt becomes convinced he has glimpsed Lisa in a posh downtown restaurant. His first impulse, naturally, is to skip the plane and stalk his ex over the next few days, calling his fiancée every so often to pretend he's in China.

"Wicker Park" starts to get genuinely strange when Matt hides in Lisa's apartment and is surprised by a completely different woman (Rose Byrne) who says her name is Lisa, too. Against his better judgment -- this is, after all, a girl who takes her Scotch straight from the bottle -- he makes love to her. In the morning she serves coffee in champagne flutes and makes a toast "to us." Cue the "Twilight Zone" music.

What's the relationship between the two Lisas? For that matter, what does Alex, the actress girlfriend of Matt's best friend, Luke (Matthew Lillard), have to do with this snarled ball of yarn? Has Matt lost his mind or has the screenwriter? To say more would spoil the film's secrets, and while they're not wholly unpredictable, there's still pleasure in letting them pop out of their gopher holes on their own. By the end, "Wicker Park" has become a loopy and oddly touching tale of one person's sour delight in dismantling the lives of other, more beautiful, people.

The movie's a remake of a 1996 French film called "L'Appartement" that starred Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. The original was never released in the United States, but even without seeing it you can tell that "Wicker Park" explains too much. If the film flirts with suspense-movie cliches and occasionally just stops making sense, director Paul McGuigan ("Gangster No. 1") keeps us off-balance by trotting out every visual trick in the book, including some that were retired in the late 1960s for good reason. The split-screens and overused freeze-frames nevertheless convey a feverish private world of stunted passion. The title may come from a Chicago neighborhood, but the movie itself seems to unfold in a lovely and diseased chamber of the heart.

The cast swims upstream through the folderol and mostly makes it to dry land. Hartnett looks nicely bamboozled by the end, but Kruger is as beautifully hollow as she was as Helen in "Troy." Her Trojan castmate Byrne (she played Brad Pitt's love slave) does well in a tricky role -- she knows there's no shame in well-turned trash and thus wallows with a finesse that might have made Bette Davis proud.

It's Lillard who provides the biggest laughs and sharpest notes of pathos as the best friend who's all bravado on the surface and grabby insecurity underneath. This is the first actual acting the "Scooby-Doo" star has done, and it hints that he may get more interesting as he gets older. (Which is any day now: He's 34 already.)

Stealing the show from them all is an indie-pop soundtrack of uncommon charm, with cuts from Death Cab for Cutie, Mazzy Star, The Shins, Mogwai, Postal Service, and others. "Wicker Park" is goofy enough to insist you can't have true love without a Coldplay song playing in the background, but it's slick enough to make you want to buy the CD anyway.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Wicker Park
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Written by: Brandon Boyce, from a script by Gilles Mimouni
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Diane Kruger, Rose Byrne, Matthew Lillard
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (sexuality, language)
**1/2

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