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The Ghost Writer

Contrived and Ridiculous

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

There’s contrivance, there’s excessive contrivance, and then there’s The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski’s (Chinatown, Oliver Twist, The Pianist) adaptation of Robert Harris’ bestselling 2007 novel, The Ghost.

Co-written with Harris, a former political journalist and editor, The Ghost Writer is a major misfire by a director who, before his recent legal troubles (he’s under house arrest in Switzerland pending extradition to the United States), had resurrected both his reputation and his career with 2002’s Oscar-winning WWII-Holocaust drama, The Pianist. If the adaptation of Harris’ novel is any indication, Polanski picked an over-obvious, shallow, trite political thriller that woefully underutilizes his talents as a filmmaker.

As in Harris’ novel, the “Ghost” (Ewan McGregor) of the title is never given a name. A failed novelist, the Ghost makes a comfortable living ghost writing memoirs for celebrities. When Michael McAra, a former press aide and ghost writer for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), drowns in an accident, in exchange for a cool $250,000, Lang’s publisher, John Maddox (James Belushi), hires the Ghost to revamp Lang’s memoirs in just four weeks.

Lang, his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), his chief aide, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), and a security detail, have temporarily moved to Maddox’s compound in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

At Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost receives the first, ungainly draft of Lang’s memoirs. Bly limits the Ghost’s access to the manuscript, forcing him to rely on editing, recorded interviews, transcriptions, and his own polished writing to fill in the gaps.

What begins as a doable, if high-pressure, assignment, takes a turn for the worst when Lang’s former foreign secretary and current UN envoy accuses Lang of war crimes, specifically the extradition of suspected terrorists to the United States for torture, breaking British, European, and international law. The Hague-based International Court of Justice, however, has no U.S. jurisdiction, making Lang, at least temporarily, a political exile and fugitive from international law.

The Ghost’s research turns up information linking Lang to Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson), a Harvard professor with apparent ties to the CIA and an international defense contractor, Hatherton (modeled after Halliburton), that runs suspiciously cheery ads on its home page touting its $45 billion revenue and “peace through massive military hardware purchases” business philosophy.

As cameras and protestors, including a retired British soldier whose son died in Iraq (he’s clearly modeled on Cindy Sheehan’s protest outside former President Bush’s compound in Crawford, Texas) descend on Maddox’s compound, the Ghost realizes he’s torn between allegiance to Lang and his conscience.

In a little over two, sporadically engaging, hours, The Ghost Writer switches gears from character drama to political drama and, finally, to 70s-style political conspiracy thriller. Each switch is less persuasive and believable than the last until, ultimately, Polanski and Harris throw in four twists, apparently to keep audiences gasping at the increasingly contrived, increasingly ridiculous, and increasingly implausible plot turns. And that doesn’t include the ill-conceived, poorly executed denouement, of which the less said, the better.

But maybe, just maybe, we weren’t expected to take The Ghost Writer seriously, but as comedy or satire. If either is the case, then Polanski failed. Everyone in the cast plays their roles “straight,” without a hint of humor or exaggeration — with the exception of Kim Cattrall, whose attempt at a British accent will leave moviegoers perplexed, amused, or both.

Political satire only works when the subject and the target of said satire remains an influential political player — Blair and Bush no longer are. Outdated, safe satire is, ultimately, not satire at all. It’s limp parody.