From the Jesus metaphor in "Robocop" to the indictment of American imperialism in "Starship Troopers," Paul Verhoeven has often toyed with formula. Even when the Dutch filmmaker gave up on Hollywood and returned to The Netherlands, he upended expectations with his sensational WWII thriller "Black Book," melding genres with the devious energy of a mad scientist. But none of those efforts approach the high concept of "Tricked," an hour-long crowdsourced offering that was produced for Dutch television that Verhoeven developed out of online suggestions.
Finding its way into a limited U.S. release this week four years after its initial festival play, "Tricked" hardly ranks among Verhoeven’s best achievements, but it’s catnip for his diehard fans. The movie comes equipped with a half-hour documentary showcasing its unique conception. Paired with the airy, vulgar romp that Verhoeven ultimately made, it elevates this otherwise very minor work into an intriguing examination of the filmmaking practice itself. (It’s also a perfect excuse to get amped up for "Elle," Verhoeven’s upcoming rape-revenge drama starring Isabella Huppert, which is expected to hit Cannes this year.) Like "Project Greenlight," the behind-the-scenes prologue in "Tricked" magnifies the paradoxical nature of the production process, in which the vision of a single individual runs counter to the collaborative nature of the art form.
The result is all over the place, but fascinating for the same reason. A joyfully naughty tale of blackmail and infidelity, "Tricked" often feels like flipping through several channels featuring different titles in Verhoeven’s filmography: There’s the sexual thriller, the black comedy, the outrageous romantic developments that characterized his 1973 debut, "Turkish Delight." (Nothing here touches on Verhoeven’s eventual American wanderings into science fiction, although the innovative digital nature of the storytelling does imbue the proceedings with an otherworldly quality.)
The documentary outlines the essence of the challenge: Screenwriter Kim Van Kooten wrote four pages of a screenplay along with eight central characters. Teams of filmmakers submitted an additional seven sections, from which the director selected his favorite parts. (A separate version, not for broadcast, was filmed in piecemeal by different groups.) Unlike "Project Greenlight," the creative challenge stems less from whether the filmmaker suits the material than whether the masses can give him enough good stuff. That sense of intrigue transcends the actual quality of the outcome — the one moment of drama in the documentary involves Verhoeven’s insistence on finding a structure — but Verhoeven still manages to stitch together a fairly entertaining pastiche of his favorite themes.
"Tricked" features some weird odds and ends, but with a strong cast and some genuinely enjoyable twists, the movie delivers well enough. The story kicks off with the 50th birthday celebration for high-powered executive Remco (Peter Blok). While his family and friends gather in his spacious home, Remco’s caught off-guard by the resurfacing of former flame Nadja (Sallie Harmsen), who claims to be pregnant by a dead man in Japan — until she meets up with Remco at his office the next day and says the kid is his. That only marks the first of several curveballs built into this fragmented script, which also involves the rebellious antics of Remco’s two teen children, and their crafty friend Merel (Gaite Jansen), who’s something of a schemer herself.
As the plot shifts from extortion schemes to revelations of new affairs and spying, "Tricked" remains a consistently entertaining survey of Verhoeven’s favorite tropes: Femme fatales, double-crossing and sexual deviance all figure into an amusing psychological thriller that’s all over the place, which is part of the point. Contextualized by the documentary, the movie amounts to an enticing narrative experiment even when it doesn’t quite hold together. Inevitably, the matching of a director with many, many collaborators yields an uneven product. But he still pushes back. As Verhoeven puts it during the production, "This is a democracy. Unless I’ve filmed it."
And despite the erratic screenplay, it’s still plenty of fun. Remco slips in and out of controlling the proceedings, while various other power players come up with plans to take advantage of him. Nobody’s entirely innocent, but Verhoeven allows some of the strongest personalities — particularly the women — to wind up in far more control than the movie’s traditionally dominant male lead expects. In other words, it’s another dose of subversive humor from a filmmaker who has steeped his career in just that.
Sifting through 10,000 pages of script submissions, Verhoeven attempts to find the happy medium between what the people want and his own interests. While there are no major clashes of the sort that elevated "Project Greenlight," the non-fiction section establishes plenty of details that enhance the viewing experience. (Verhoeven seems especially keen on one particularly twisted revelation, suggested online, involving a tampon. The scene works.)
Still, "Tricked" doesn’t quite succeed at making the case that the experiment was worthwhile. In an era defined by attempts at digital innovation, crowdsourced filmmaking has gathered less traction than the immersive possibilities of virtual reality. Instead, it suggests that some aspects of filmmaking’s top-down nature ought to remain unchanged. "Sometimes in life, you need to step into the unknown," Verhoeven says, but "Tricked" mostly confirms that his sensibilities are irrepressible.
"Tricked" opens in New York and is available on Fandor starting February 26.