You may not have been asking for a snarky nonsinging Wall Street version of the Verdi opera "Rigoletto," but you've got one in "Rick," and, strangely enough, Lemony Snicket is the man to thank. Or blame. Or both.
Written by Daniel Handler -- the nom de réalité of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" author Snicket -- and directed by Curtiss Clayton, an established film editor making his behind-the-camera feature debut, "Rick" strips away all those unnecessary arias and sets the story among the office cubicles of Image Inc. It's never entirely clear what the company does, or what the job of second-tier executive Rick O'Lette (Bill Pullman) is other than manufacturing jokey, brutally macho banter with everyone from secretaries to his soulless young boss, Duke (Aaron Stanford).
Rick's one of those guys who lives to be the life of the party, but the party comes to an end when he casually insults a job applicant (Sandra Oh) twice in one day. She lays down a curse that's an early highlight of the film -- "You are an evil man with an evil soul, and it will come back at you" -- and Rick is subtly knocked off kilter. Cabs no longer stop for him, and in Manhattan what greater sign of invisibility is there?
Cabs do stop for Rick's beautiful teenage daughter Eve (Agnes Bruckner of "Blue Car"), whose existence he has been trying to keep a secret from the dogs at the office. It's a losing battle. Eve is impatiently busting out all over, and, worse, she's having an anonymous cybersex affair with his boss that's about to spill into the open.
That's the kind of melodramatic coincidence that opera exploits with hot fudge and a cherry on top, but in a movie it merely feels far-fetched. The cogs of fate turn and clank in "Rick," and when a sleek corporate assassin named Buck (Dylan Baker) offers Rick a chance to rise to the top by disposing of Duke, you can feel the consequences being wheeled into place behind the scenery.
Everything about this curio is claustrophobic; shot on a set that doesn't much resemble a Wall Street office, "Rick" has the vertiginous angles and saturated colors of a low-rent "Brazil," and it's a moot point whether the pop-art expressionism comes from screenwriter Handler or not. Maybe this is just another series of unfortunate events, but the rooty-toot accordion music on the soundtrack shouldn't have been one of them.
What keeps "Rick" on track are the performances. Bruckner's Eve yaws deftly between being a likably smart-mouthed teen and a sexually adventurous adult, and she leads the audience to consider incestuous overtones that the movie finally backs away from. Baker is very funny as the patient but short-tempered executive hitman, and Pullman especially relishes the chance to sink his teeth into a rare lead role.
He lets you see the bitterness driving this white-collar jester and the genuine good humor, too. Rick's a jerk and he knows it, but if that self-knowledge makes him bearable, it can't save him in the end. That's as close as "Rick" gets to the dramatic craziness of opera, and it's not close enough.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.