'The Deal': Movie never made it to theaters, but it's worth renting

Despite having an often clever inside-Hollywood comedic plot and a cast led by William H. Macy and Meg Ryan, The Deal was never released theatrically after its debut last January at the Sundance Film Festival.

But the movie is not without merit. Or to put this more positively, its DVD release this week provides viewers with a chance to see the movie, which is at times funny, suspenseful and engrossing.

The Deal continues the longtime Hollywood tradition, as practiced in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and Robert Altman's The Player, of biting the hand that feeds. Based on novelist Peter Lefcourt's satirical farce about deal-making and movie production in modern Hollywood, the film was brought into being by Macy, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Steven Schachter and stars as has-been Hollywood producer Charlie Berns.

Despondent and suicidal, Charlie is about to end his life when his nephew Lionel (Jason Ritter) shows up unexpectedly at his falling-apart L.A. bungalow with a screenplay. Although Lionel's story appears to be on a rather unlikely subject for a feature film — 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the tariff laws of 1876 — Charlie gets a brainstorm. Reading in the trades that rapper-turned-movie-action-hero Bobby Mason (LL Cool J) has converted to Judaism and wants to make movies with Jewish themes, Charlie meets with Bobby's rabbi (Elliot Gould) and convinces him that he has a great project for Bobby.

And before you can say “I'll take a percentage of the gross instead of a salary,” the screenplay has become a modern-day action-thriller titled Ben Disraeli — Freedom Fighter, a big Hollywood studio has committed to it and a studio development director (played by Ryan) has been assigned to work with Charlie on the project. Although Ryan's Deidre Hearn quickly figures out that Charlie is scamming the studio and essentially making everything up as he goes along, she's intrigued by Charlie's chutzpah and finds herself being drawn to a man she originally had viewed as a loser.

The Deal isn't the most original Hollywood satire. Its riffs on agents, studio execs, the entertainment media, and the egos and extravagances of movie stars are hardly new. And the romance between Charlie and Deidre is hard to accept, even within this farcical setting. But I must admit to having laughed, or at least smiled, my way through the movie.