As a rule, movies that are jejunely naïve work better than movies that are sycophantically pandering missives of nonsense. Ridley Scott's horrendous Body of Lies manages to be both at once, a detestable thriller of zero originality, insight, thematic subtext or even consistent quality filmmaking. The acting is rote—the stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, have no chemistry, and even if they did, the self-immolating, stultifying and tone-deaf screenplay by William Monahan, based on David Ignatius's book, would not allow them to display it. Compounding the myriad pre-production problems of a miscast lead actor is a director ready to throw everything he can to the wall in the wake of his visually restrained gangster saga, evidently wishing to show that pesky Paul Greengrass who the real king of fast-cutting, why-use-four-cameras-when-you-can-use-twelve, look-at-what-I-can-do action movie-making is. Scott remains a talented, intermittently stimulating composer of sequences, but since Matchstick Men he has been making scenes, not films, and today little if any of the nascently intriguing, broad and vaguely authorial vision behind The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner persists.
The trailer for Body of Lies seemed to promise nothing but a reworking of brother Tony Scott's Spy Game, with DiCaprio playing Brad Pitt's part while Crowe accepts the drudgery of aging in Robert Redford's spot. In that respect, the trailer was honest. DiCaprio is assigned to the role of Roger Ferris, a superspy who is capable of withstanding inhuman torture while romancing the most gorgeous woman in sight (Golshifteh Farahani), engendering a phony terrorist network, dodging bullets and bombs, while barking back into his cellular phone to his boss that he's sick of the job and Crowe's CIA Middle Eastern Section Chief Ed Hoffman is playing god with real people, including the agent on the ground. Someone needed to assure DiCaprio that he does not need to further advance the testosterone toughness factor yet again, but evidently his aching desire to convince everyone that he too can “play hard” continues to win out, and will be back in the spotlight in Martin Scorsese's next film, Shutter Island. DiCaprio is best when he plays to his strengths, and he has never been more strikingly vigorous and productive in doing so than in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, which, with its acute sensitivity, allowed the actor to play desperation and angst, dualistically conveying the hidden torment of the victimizer with the impetuously manifested grief of the victimized under the honeyed surface of his most prominent gifts, the suave, flashy but naturally empathizing exterior he exudes. Repeatedly playing against his seemingly effortless strengths, DiCaprio has finally run his strategy into the ground, calamitously embarking on a risible journey of almost no greater substance than an adolescent desire to perform against perceived type.
Crowe, meanwhile, attempts to salvage some semblance of meaning out of the movie by simply playing his godlike demon of sociopathic enjoining and ordering with as much bluster and conviction as the flaccid screenplay will allow. No such luck: juxtaposed against DiCaprio's puling and over-emoting, Crowe's hotshot merely looks like an extension of same, only with authority. The result is pouring marinara sauce on crushed tomatoes. Crowe is an eminently puissant actor, but he is at his best when he underplays the psychological unrest and narcissism behind his more unsavory avatars, such as last year's 3:10 to Yuma. Here, just eating his breakfast he looks like he wants to run into the movie theater and throw soccer balls at the heads of random people merely to pass the time.
Scott's limp attempts to push the antagonism, and to simultaneously further some decisively uninvolving plot twists at the expense of the thinly-sketched caricatures at the minuscule-sized heart of his movie are quite appalling, especially when the twists are—to be charitable—quite unbelievable and absurd. Monahan's screenplay for The Departed played fast and loose, but, with tentative care, at least seemed to make the chess pieces into three-dimensional beings of some emotionally invested worthiness and spiritual parallelism (considering this, however, it is not unreasonable to estimate that Scorsese contributed these touches and many others that enriched Monahan's work). On another plane of humbly perspicacious observation, Body of Lies' overbearing political message is remarkably redundant, resembling the intellectual equivalent of a half-full bowl of cold gruel.
That, however, may all be expected, given that, unlike a Scorsese or a Spielberg, or even a Stiller or a Shyamalan, it is highly difficult to tell just where Scott is coming from, what he is attempting to get at and why. Once aspiring to be “the John Ford of science-fiction,” Scott's early genre work stands apart from his latter endeavors, deceptively signposting a markedly less impressive career of one ostensible stab in the dark after another. When questioned about the meaning of his art, most of Scott's fans seem to either scoff or ignore the pointed issue. Whatever unmined vein would have been probed had Scott's Legend not so resoundingly failed, one cannot know. As it stands, Scott's films are more easily self-critiqued and either enjoyed or dismissed as stand-alone enterprises. He is a much more arresting artist than Ron Howard, but the recurrence of genre (sci-fi, epic, war movie, occasional offbeat drama) seems to only follow from one almost whimsical try after another (“How about a gangster film?” “A spy vs. terrorist movie?” “An historical epic?”), typically with the emphasis on a cyclorama of blurry imagery and unquestioned scope (of production if truly nothing else).
Body of Lies, however, if to be judged all the more churlishly through the restrictedly narrow prism of a director making just another movie, is nothing less than a complete waste. The romance is nothing but a laughable confluence of the kind of fancifully archaic wartime melodrama belonging to a bygone era, fascinatingly last seen in cinemas in another overwrought director's DiCaprio-starring opus of misdirected anger and geopolitical absentmindedness, Blood Diamond. Its action beats are tired, as though Scott himself only halfheartedly played his part of ringmaster and construction project manager, and the geopolitical “vision” driving the insipid posturing of the filmmakers into the assaulted minds constituting the audience manages to be opaquely, confusingly muddled, rendered in ceaselessly unengaging “twists” as unforeseeable as the slight turn in the road half a mile from one's home and childishly perfervid in its faux cynicism and gloom all at once. It is grand folly, waltzing with histrionic spy-game perfidy and pungency with woeful ungainliness and inability. Eagle Eye wore its preposterousness as a badge of honor, playing around in the sandbox with some of the same toys as Body of Lies, but knowing, at least, that it was in the sandbox.