Instead of Scrooge facing his past, present and future, and George Bailey seeing what other lives would be without him, former movie director Donald Baines (Kirk Douglas) helplessly watches what his son has become, the son he rejected decades ago, more concerned with his seemingly successful career than any chance of family. Confined to his bed and dying of cancer in a sizable mansion, he fields questions from a magazine writer who interviews him based on today’s standards, analyzing him based on what people might want to read, about what kind of man he wishes he were, with hope for a few words of wisdom, rather than getting into the thick of his career, making romantic films that made audiences swoon and sigh. During one question, Donald is whisked away to a large movie theater, with tanned leather seats and an impressive screen. Based on the end of “Illusion”, the big question is how he even got to this theater. His long-time editor, Stan (Ron Marasco) who “saved my ass many times,” according to Baines when he speaks to him, hosts a screening for him, a look at what he missed. Stan explains that after his death, he looked at the lives of other people. He claims that everyone’s memories are stored somewhere for people like him to examine. He’s seen screwball comedies, tragedies, and joy. Boy, I hope not. The idea of memories being stored for use by whomever if there is any kind of Heaven seems moot if souls are preserved after death and sent up there. Personally, it would be an even greater boon if up there are not only movies that were unfortunately lost to time and dust and dirt, but also the purported longer cut of “Greed.”
So Baines lies on his bed, watching his son Christopher (director Michael Goorjian) trying to attract Isabelle (Karen Tucker) from the stereotypical jock boyfriend, hearing a voice on the soundtrack that isn’t his, but turns out to be his son thinking about what his father might say if he was around, far from what Baines claims he would tell his son. Ron Marasco, patiently playing Stan, looks like Albert Brooks if he had performed the “Mr. Cellophane” number that John C. Reilly made his own in “Chicago.” Stan is a calm soul, obviously still admiring of his old boss, and even somewhat saddened by the personal torture Baines goes through in watching his son working in San Francisco as a performance promoter for Mortimer Malalatete (Richmond Arquette), who demands the humiliation of a “corporate bitch” who, predictably, turns out to be Isabelle, to whom Christopher goes to great lengths to deliver the invitation. In key moments, in many reactions, Baines wishes he could have been there to dispense the advice he believes Christopher needed. But what he believes at those times is not what he believed back then as he reveals to Stan that he once told the woman who was pregnant with Christopher, an extra on a film he shot in San Francisco, to get off his Hollywood lawn, to get out of his life. It’s one of the more forgivable moments in what becomes convoluted later on. It’s questionable why Stan wouldn’t know those parts of Donald’s life, but perhaps he did and just let Donald speak it for the sake of posterity and self-discovery.
Kirk Douglas’ roles are very few now and as Donald, he brings urgency to his performance, the need to know what happened to what he missed out on. Of course age and illness matter in his performance since Baines is on his deathbed after all, figuratively and literally, but he still has a certain energy, a desire to be remembered not only for the roles he performed in the glorious past, but to also bring something to those who would only see him in roles like these, never looking at Spartacus, Colonel Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey, Richard Dudgeon, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jonathan Shields for whatever philistine reasons. Michael Goorjian performs Christopher as the typical tough guy, though that tough guy mind never stops thinking about the girl who could have been with him, as he searches through all those years. His other talent, in a screenplay top-heavy with writers (though judging from the contrived ending and the overreaching climax, it feels like a collaborative effort), is a few moments towards the end where Christopher misinterprets Isabelle’s domestic situation. Goorjian and the other screenwriters slyly sidestep predictability in those scenes, usually a rarity in moments like those. He and Douglas and Marasco also find a steadiness to the story, a comfortable pace for curiosity seekers. “Illusion” isn’t run roughshod with treacly emotion. Unavoidably, there are some sugary moments and clichés such as rain-soaked kisses and outlandish “artistic” stage performances, but it keeps hold of that just-another-day-in-Hollywood feeling. The old grow dusty and the new try to stay new. The “new” are never seen, but the journalist shows it. “Illusion” isn’t entirely new with forcing old and desperate men to see what they’re throwing away, but it’s got a little spark that’s enough to keep watching.