“Argylle,” Reviewed: The I.P. Ouroboros That Hollywood Hath Wrought

The word “content” is a workhorse of the digital era, referring to any form of culture or media pumped through the distribution tubes of the Internet, regardless of its medium. “Intellectual property,” in this framework, means existing content that can generate more content ad infinitum. It describes character-driven franchises such as James Bond, “universes” including Marvel’s ever-expanding array of superheroes, the real-life events that inspired the true-crime boom, and even narrative typologies such as the television series “True Detective,” which, by shuffling its settings and cast members, can be indefinitely extended. Good I.P. insures that any production derived from it has a preëxisting fan base and an ability to generate headlines: a new riff on an old favorite. (See: “Mean Girls,” the movie-musical based on the musical based on the movie.) In an era where streaming platforms are scrambling to fill their content coffers, reworking existing I.P. has become a reliable shortcut to bankability. Woe betide the piece of content that risks entering the market as something wholly unfamiliar.

All of this goes some way toward explaining the perplexing existence of “Argylle,” a cutesy and convoluted new spy film from Universal Pictures and Apple Original Films directed by Matthew Vaughn, who is perhaps best known for his “Kingsman” franchise of gentlemanly British action capers. “Argylle,” according to press accounts, is a movie adaptation of a novel, also called “Argylle,” that was published in January, by Bantam, written by a much-hyped début author named Elly Conway. The book, about “a troubled agent with a tarnished past,” quickly became a national best-seller. Its cover boasted, “THE BOOK THAT INSPIRED THE MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.” Elly Conway was presumed to be a pseudonym, since no author with that name revealed herself during the book’s release. Then, when the film came out this month, its main character turned out to be a successful spy novelist with the same name, Elly Conway. The novel was, reportedly, a kind of real-world I.P. prop commissioned by Vaughn from two veteran thriller writers, Terry Hayes and Tammy Cohen; the book appears to have been adapted from the movie, not, as advertised, the other way around. The contents of the novel, meanwhile, bear little resemblance to the movie in theatres now. Instead, it unspools a story that is meant to be the subject of a later film in the nascent “Argylle” franchise—which, as we learn in a reveal at the end, probably ties into Vaughn’s “Kingsman” franchise. Am I making this clear?

Clarity is not the goal of this I.P. ouroboros. In the film, Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in the midst of writing the fifth volume of a series called “Argylle.” Conway is mousy, phobic of plane travel, and loves her parents and her cat, a Scottish Fold named Alfie. (This latter detail has fuelled speculation that the novel was, in fact, written by Taylor Swift, who owns cats of the same breed.) But the film begins with yet another bait and switch: a brief segment starring Henry Cavill as Aubrey Argylle, the Bond-ish hero of Elly Conway’s novels, and his villainous opponent, a faux-Bond girl played by the pop star Dua Lipa. A scene of them squaring off on a Greek island fades out into a “real life” scene of Conway reading from her new volume at a book-launch event.

Unfortunately, those first several minutes of Cavill and Lipa are the best thing in the more than two-hour-long movie. It may surprise you that Conway the fictional novelist is not what she seems, either. She quickly gets embroiled in a spy plot, because her novels are too accurate—she has somehow predicted what a criminal organization called the Division is up to, so the Division’s agents are trying to catch her. She is rescued by a true (albeit shabby) spy, Aidan Wilde, played by Sam Rockwell, who leads her on a quest to discover the truth—or something. Distractingly, in moments of distress or when she needs extra motivation for a dramatic escape, Conway’s vision goes blurry and Aidan is replaced onscreen by the novelist’s character, Argylle, in a kind of hallucination.

The narrative is driven by the question of who is manipulating whom, though ultimately it’s easiest to conclude that the screenplay is manipulating the viewer. Conway, in fact, has been deluded, too: She is actually Aidan’s colleague, a real spy named Rachel Kylle, whose false identity as a novelist was brainwashed into her by Division members posing as Conway’s parents, when she came out of a coma induced by an assignment gone awry. Her novels are actually hazy memories of her spy exploits. (Were the enthusiastic readers at Conway’s events fake, too, or did the implanted novels really become a surprise hit? We may never know.) The inexplicable twists are interspersed with puerile action scenes. Driven to destroy the Division’s headquarters, Conway, now Kylle, performs martial arts in a haze of multicolored smoke, then ice-skates on knives through a pool of crude oil on a rig, the site of the film’s sorely overdue dénouement. Bereft of all she loved as Conway except for her cat, Kylle recovers a forgotten romance with Aidan and reassumes her authorial identity at a final book launch.

But wait: at the book launch, a man stands up who appears to be Aubrey Argylle, a real-life version of Conway’s fake books’ fictional protagonist. Kylle freaks out; the screen fades to black. I.P. films like to deploy the gimmick of an extra post- or mid-credits scene to tease the extension of the franchise into future spinoffs. Here, as the credits roll, we see a young Aubrey Argylle in a pub called the Kingsman Arms (an apparent reference to Vaughn’s other series) ordering a cosmopolitan in a kind of secret-code exchange and then, in lieu of a cocktail, being handed a gun by the bartender—a scene which, unbeknownst to the uninformed viewer, is drawn from “Argylle” the “real” novel that was likely published to promote the film. The last thing onscreen is a poster of the movie’s Argylle book series with words appearing above it: “BOOK ONE THE MOVIE COMING SOON.” (Presumably that film will simply star Cavill.) This banner read to me as something of an ominous forecast from Vaughn: not only must a story not be new but it also must not end. Whether intentionally or not, “Argylle” serves best as a meta-parable of the extreme contortions that a production must undergo in today’s Hollywood to justify its existence as an original story.

Another prominent film of the past year riffs on the instability of authorial identity, with far more fruitful results: Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” an adaptation of the 2001 novel “Erasure,” by Percival Everett. In it, Thelonious (Monk) Ellison, a Black novelist and professor, struggles with the publishing industry’s shoehorning of his novels into the genre of “African American Fiction.” For his latest novel, instead of his usual recastings of Greek plays, Monk writes a pastiche of Black clichés — gangs, drugs, gun violence—and titles it “My Pafology” (later changing it, hilariously, to “Fuck”) under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, who, according to the book’s marketing, is a felon on the run. The novel is a smash hit and it, too, meets the fate of all popular storytelling: a movie adaptation. Yet the true subject of “American Fiction,” and the thing that “Argylle” completely lacks, is the mundane dramas of rounded human relationships. Monk’s family includes his brother, who is newly out of the closet; his mother, who’s been showing signs of Alzheimer’s; and a longtime housekeeper seeking a life beyond her job. The deceitful novel in question is not just a narrative prop but a stone thrown into a lake; its consequences ripple through the lives of those around the author at the story’s center. Toward its end, “American Fiction” stumbles out into a cumbersome meta-narrative with multiple dream-within-a-dream variations, but it is unlikely to spawn a sequel, let alone an entire I.P. multiverse; the film is content—that is, satisfied—to simply tell a story from start to finish, which feels like something of a novelty right now. ♦

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