Messages Deleted

(2009)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

Every month, at least one movie is quietly shuffled onto DVD despite having major stars and intriguing premises. Bargain Bin seeks to find the direct-to-video features unjustly buried by studios.

With more ambition, Messages Deleted could have been a great thriller variation on the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaboration Adaptation. The title and DVD box art give the impression that this will be a thriller in the vein of two other Larry Cohen scripts: Phone Booth and Cellular. It’s actually a thriller about a failed screenwriter embroiled in a murder mystery whose victims are right out of his only sold (but unproduced) screenplay, and it spends a lot of time talking about the conventions of movies without really twisting or defying them. Merely acknowledging clichés doesn’t automatically overcome them.

Matthew Lillard plays the screenwriter, Joel Brandt, as sort of an angry Woody Allen. He works as a screenwriting professor at an urban art school, where he’s highly critical of his students despite his own lack of success. One day, he comes home from work to discover a message on his answering machine — a haggard, fearful voice imploring him to help, saying he doesn’t know Joel, but his captor told him to call. Joel thinks it’s a prank from his best buddy, Adam (Michael Eklund), but Adam has no idea what he’s talking about. Joel shrugs it off, until he learns of the caller’s murder. He comes forward about the message to the two detectives on the case, Lavery (Deborah Kara Unger) and Breedlove (Serge Houde), but he realizes he erased his answering machine, thinking it was a prank.

The detectives are immediately suspicious, and their suspicions seem confirmed when Joel gets another message from another victim. Innocently trying to help, it never occurs to him that Lavery and Breedlove think of him as a suspect — until they drag him in for questioning. Left with no choice but to clear his name, Joel starts investigating on his own. He realizes the choice of victims has come from his script, Senseless Killings, but that doesn’t limit the suspects — it was read all over Hollywood. For reasons unknown to him, someone’s reenacting the script and trying to pin it on Joel.

The idea of a writer whose work seemingly comes to life is nothing new, but if exploited properly, Messages Deleted could have been a fun, effective deconstruction of not just thrillers but cinematic conventions in general — something akin to Scream, the franchise that briefly catapulted Lillard into stardom, but a little more cerebral and strange. At times, it seems like producer/director Rob Cowan wants to toe the line between fantasy and reality — is Joel a screenwriter, or a character in someone’s screenplay? — but he never goes all the way with the idea, forcing the film into standard thriller territory. Every twist and turn — from the decoy suspect to the actual killer to the detectives’ bordering-on-comical distrust of Joel — is conventional in every conceivable way.

Some entertainment value can be derived from the detectives’ misanthropic view of a failed screenwriter-turned-killer. Breedlove speculates on Joel’s obvious motive: “Another psychotic screenwriter who got rejected.” Unfortunately, the comedy value of Lavery and Breedlove is purely unintentional, so they don’t enliven the film as much as they should. Much of it boils down to the relationship between Joel and his kiss-ass student, Millie (Gina Holden). Before long, Millie is the only person left to turn to, but if you think she’s trustworthy — well, then, maybe this movie will surprise you.

I don’t know what I expected out of Messages Deleted, but I wanted more than a substandard thriller with a usually decent cast putting forth only enough effort to earn their paychecks. Cowan and Cohen waste a great premise on a ho-hum film.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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