There probably aren’t that many movie stars capable of retaining their charisma after a stroke has rendered them nigh-incoherent. But based on Illusion, Kirk Douglas doesn’t seem to have lost a step. He still has that intensity he always had, and even though he’s at the stage of his career where every movie from here on out is going to involve playing terminally ill and doing a death scene, he won’t be confined to a bed; at one point, he actually jumps up and down on top of it. The speech therapy has improved his post-stroke slur since he was in Diamonds, but you still have to listen carefully from time to time.
Douglas plays Donald Baines, a director of classical-era romance movies, being interviewed on his deathbed. A question about whether he regrets never having had a family segues into an extended fantasy sequence, wherein the ghost of his former editor Stan (co-writer Ron Marasco) takes him to a mystical movie theater to show him three films of a life in different decades. It’s sort of like A Christmas Carol, but with one twist: The visions Donald and Stan watch are not of Donald’s life, but his illegitimate son’s.
And therein lies the movie’s crucial flaw. The son is played by director Michael Goorjian, who portrays young Christopher in his teens, twenties, and finally thirties (Goorjian’s actual age). Forget that he isn’t believable as a teen, or that every ten years he becomes so wildly changed that he might as well be playing a whole new character (the idea is that each stage of his life is a different film genre, but it’s hard to find that believable) — it’s a fundamentally tough challenge to portray Kirk Douglas’ kid when we all know damn well what Douglas’ real-life famous son is like. He may also be named Michael, but that’s where the similarities end. Dan Aykroyd played Douglas’ son in Diamonds, which was a bit of a stretch, but not as much as this.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that the scenes with Goorjian as Christopher were actually shot prior to the casting of Douglas, so it’s not like he could modify his performance in any way based on the actor playing his father. And one can hardly fault the man for wanting Douglas in his movie; he’s what makes it worth watching (though cameos from Ted Raimi and Malcolm in the Middle dad Bryan Cranston liven the Christopher segments up a bit).
The gist of the story is that growing up without a father has made Christopher insecure about women (news flash: Having a dad doesn’t exactly remedy such things). In his teens, he falls in love at first sight and pulls some elaborate stunts to try to win the attention of Isabelle (Karen Tucker), even though we never really see what’s special about her; the shy bookish-type girl who abets Christopher’s plans seems much more appealing. In his twenties, Christopher — now known as “Craft” — has gone goth (“Like a beatnik, only more depressed”) and works as an assistant to a tyrannical performance artist, who inadvertently leads him into another chance encounter with Isabelle. By his thirties, Christopher is an ex-convict; will he ever find true love?
In each segment, he imagines his father’s voice in his head, rebuking him. His real dad, watching from the cinema of the afterlife, tries to call out to his son, but to no avail, at least initially. You know there’s a point to be made about redemption here, and a purpose to showing all this stuff to the elder Baines, who knows full well that love stories — even familial ones — depend upon “the space between people.”
And here, Goorjian makes a good point, as too many contemporary love stories on film feature the leads jumping into bed very quickly, usually to be broken up later by some silly misunderstanding. Golden Age Hollywood, unable to show anyone leaping into bed, relied on keeping the lovers apart the whole movie; indeed, so did Shakespeare. Goorjian, who loosely based this film on Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century play L’Illusion Comique, understands the necessity of keeping people apart until the end, both in the Christopher-Isabelle story, and the Donald-Christopher story.
But Goorjian isn’t the man to star in it, and Tucker isn’t a strong female lead either. No doubt the director worked with what he could get, and was extremely fortunate that he could get an icon of the screen to bless his project. The movie is therefore better than it ought to be, but without Douglas, it ought not to be at all.