In the case of 'Paranoia,' the enemy is within ★★

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There's nothing wrong with "Paranoia" that a stronger director, livelier leading actors and several hundred fewer narrative conveniences wouldn't cure. It's too bad. All year we see R-rated movies crammed with fantasy violence too rough for teenagers yet fiscally dependent on that demographic. Now and then a more "grown-up" picture (ironically and typically rated PG-13) wanders past the studio gates, aimed at a somewhat broader and more seasoned crowd. The "Arbitrage" crowd, let's say: folks who, in this instance, might enjoy seeing Harrison Ford (as a Steve Jobs-type tech powerhouse, about to launch a "game changer" of a smartphone) chewing scenery, discreetly, opposite Gary Oldman (as his protege turned murderous business rival).

So what happens in "Paranoia," in that first big scene between these two supporting characters, in one of those private clubs made for tense, hushed confrontations? Nothing. A few sarcastic mutterings. And then we're onto the next bit we don't quite believe.

The slippery minnow swimming among the sharks is Adam, a Brooklyn boy played by Liam Hemsworth living with his ailing father (Richard Dreyfuss). Adam and his team colleagues lose their jobs after blowing a product pitch; at Adam's urging, they run up $16,000 on the corporate credit card (don't they deactivate those things once you're fired?). This hands the CEO played by Oldman a blackmailing opportunity. Undercover, Adam must join the ranks of the enemy tech company, run by the Ford character, to purloin a few trade secrets. He's being watched every second, but at least he has a gorgeous apartment and an affair with Ivy League colleague Amber Heard to keep his paranoia warm at night.

You sense how this'll go in the opening voice-over narration, which contains lines such as: "People always tell you 'Be careful what you wish for.'" Hemsworth and Heard have trouble holding the screen with this material, based on Joseph Finder's novel. They're meant to be dynamic, conflicted hotshots, but they're all about the hair and the clothes and the posing, and not so much about the interesting.

Director Robert Luketic did "Legally Blonde" once upon a time, but he's also responsible for two of the worst rom-coms of the 21st century ("The Ugly Truth" and "Killers," both with Katherine Heigl), and the technique he brings to bear on "Paranoia" is strictly routine: too much slo-mo at phony dramatic moments, too many fancy transitional montages splicing New York footage (the story's locale) into the Philadelphia-shot majority of the picture. My favorite moment comes when Embeth Davidtz, as Oldman's sleek henchwoman, scrambles to retrieve a telltale cellphone across a dinner table. It's a swift, startling gesture in a film not long on such details.

"Paranoia" - 2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality, violence and language)

Running time: 1:46

Opens: Friday

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