Tricked, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s new film (relatively speaking, since it first debuted in the Netherlands in 2012, played Tribeca Film Festival in 2013, and has only just recently trickled out in limited release and on VOD here in the States), is a better thought experiment than a feature. It’s a film in two parts. First we’re presented with a 34-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. As far as I know, this is the first movie to start with its own making-of documentary short. Then comes the main attraction, around 50 minutes of bouncy dark farce cut from fine-sliced sleaze. I get that it would be on the short side for a feature, and therefore is padded out to a more manageable 85 minutes so the audience feels like it’s getting its money’s worth. But starting the show with a lengthy peek behind the curtain gets things going on the wrong foot, as if making excuses for itself. The movie opens by begging. Go easy on us. Look what we had to work with.
Indeed the making of Tricked is of some note, and worth having for contextualizing purposes. Verhoeven, who had some hits in his homeland before arriving in Hollywood in the mid-80s for one of the most iconic and productive decades any filmmaker has ever had (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers), hadn’t made a feature since 2006’s Black Book, his highly anticipated return to Europe. This latest attempt opens with him explaining his theory that “the unknown forces you to be creative.” He’d taken time off. He wanted to know he could still get behind the camera and test his creative impulses. And it never hurts to try new things. So he came up with an unusual idea: a user-generated film. Working with screenwriter Kim van Kooten, he had 4 polished pages of script to post online, inviting anyone to write the next few pages. He repeated this process, selecting and editing pages for the next minutes from a huge stack of submissions, then posting for more input over and over until he had enough for the film that follows the introductory doc.
You’d think stopping and starting, crowdsourcing every few pages, would result in a halting, disorderly film. It threatens to go that way, as the project’s unwieldy amount of submissions frustrates him. The second four-minute chunk alone gets 700. This could easily end up taking the narrative Verhoeven and Van Kooten started in aimless and nonsensical directions. But he devises a way to regain a modicum of control, and the actors enjoy the thrill of collaborative unpredictability. While it is certainly nice to see a great filmmaker struggle with constraints he’s placed on himself, it’s not all that interesting to see before the feature at hand. Once the film proper begins, I found myself idly looking for the seams in the story, and, as I discovered instead a rather fluid and neatly handled riff on typical Verhoeven obsessions, I shifted my attention to auteurism. Does it become a Verhoeven film through his directorial hand, or did the crowd’s ideas for a Verhoeven project average out to the real thing?
Either way, the final product, once we finally get there, is a slight and thin little thing, albeit with a certain small charm, especially for fans of its auteur. A game cast (Peter Blok, Robert de Hoog, Sallie Harmsen, Gaite Jansen, Ricky Koole, Carolien Spoor, and others with just as wonderfully Dutch names) acts out a scenario rife with sexual gamesmanship, affairs, blackmail, deception, economic intrigue, technology, corporate malfeasance, and fraud. In other words it’s a Verhoeven picture, in love with its sleazy melodrama used to scrape out bourgeois pretensions and mores. It starts at a businessman’s 50th birthday party and ends up with hotel room trysts, boardroom trickery, and wronged women getting in prefect positions to have the last laugh. There’s not much beneath the surface, but Verhoeven fans can groove on its echoes of his usual tones and modes, remembering how they played out in his better, fuller films.
It’s all in good fun, and Verhoeven doesn’t lose a step in deploying the developments with verve. Shot in bright, clean photography and casual framing, it doesn’t leave much room for his energetic virtuosity. This is a small, contained, and unassuming picture, twisted up with just enough plot trickery to last its short runtime. That’s not to say it’s without appealing moments. The cast is amusing and committed, and there are a few sudden surprise developments. It’s the sort of movie that follows a Polaroid nude on an unexpected trajectory, then later turns on a bloody tampon in a toilet, and, later still, a sudden stabbing, key clues unveiled with sudden matter-of-fact camera restraint, shocking for nonchalant presentation. But despite such mild engaging interest, the picture mostly plays out like a featherlight doodle, a master filmmaker simply stretching his creative muscles. He’s still got it. Maybe next time he can do more.