For a while, Chloe looks like the long-awaited return to form by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, whose early films (Exotica, The Adjuster, Speaking Parts) were often absorbing character studies cloaked in the guise of a thriller and spiked with sexual tension. Unfortunately, the wait continues. This remake of the French-language hit Nathalie... eventually becomes the sort of risibly naughty picture you'd normally find on late-night Cinemax - complete with a gratuitous girl-on-girl sex scene - only infinitely better acted.
Julianne Moore is terrific as Catherine Stewart, a gynecologist who consults her patients on more than their bodily health ("An orgasm is just a series of muscle contractions," she consoles a woman who admits to being afraid of sex.). At home, though, Catherine's footing isn't so sure. She's suspicious of the long hours her college-professor husband David (Liam Neeson) is keeping, and when she intercepts a text message on his cell phone - "Thanks for last night!" - from someone named Miranda, complete with incriminating photo, she's convinced adultery is afoot.
So Catherine does what any other woman in her situation would do: She hires a beautiful hooker, Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), to come on to her husband and see if he takes the bait. Yes, the premise sounds a bit far-fetched. But Egoyan, working from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), sells the concept by allowing most of the film to unfurl exclusively through Catherine's eyes. (There's a nice scene set at a restaurant, after she's decided David is cheating on her, in which she watches him surreptitiously; his slightest exchange with their waitress suddenly seems like overt flirtation.)
Egoyan also deftly establishes Catherine's estrangement from her surly teenage son Michael (Max Thieriot), who openly defies her by allowing his girlfriend to spend the night in his room. Moore makes palpable Catherine's frustration at feeling like a stranger in her own house and being unable to explain how things deteriorated so badly. The actress earns our sympathy, so we tolerate Chloe for a while as this intelligent, astute woman embarks on an increasingly contrived series of escapades, instead of simply confronting her husband with what she knows. But the patience runs out.
Seyfried, all grown up (seriously) from Mamma Mia!, does what she can with the role of the ethereal prostitute, hinting at potential malice - even madness - beneath her angelic face. But as the movie goes on, the character makes less and less sense, and Egoyan resorts to some cheap business involving an ornate hairpin that is, quite frankly, beneath him. What has happened to this smart director's ear for resonant, compelling stories? Taking a cue from its eponymous character, Chloe skillfully seduces you, then leaves you feeling hollow and a little used.
Chloe (** out of ****) opens in South Florida theaters on Friday, March 26.