The best scene in Shintaro Shimosawa’s Misconduct comes about one-third of the way in. Hotshot lawyer Ben (Josh Duhamel) has been handed the keys to a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit against a corrupt pharmaceutical company which tampered with recent drug trials for a new medication. Now 268 consumers are dead and Ben smells blood in the water. Transformed into a petty autocrat, he bosses around co-workers, haughtily orders one of his superiors to bring him a lunch menu and shuns a good friend with legitimate concerns over the legality of their evidence. Though only a couple of minutes, these scenes work as a perfect portrait of a man losing himself to ambition. Tragically this superior sequence occurs within a largely inferior corporate thriller weighed down by a confusing narrative and haphazard handling of actors.
A meandering mess, the story lurches from one contrived intrigue to the next. It turns out Ben only has the information to take down the pharmaceutical company thanks to one-time college flame Emily (Malin Åkerman) who has since become the abused girlfriend of drug CEO Denning (Anthony Hopkins). She gives him a disc drive full of illegally obtained internal communications concerning the drug trials. The reason why is a mystery. Because she resents Denning? Because she actually loves Ben? The film never makes it clear. Surely she hates Denning, but after we watch her hire somebody to brutally beat her so she can take incriminating photos of herself crying and bleeding, we can no longer trust that hatred as a clear motivator. And since Shimosawa takes pains to depict Emily as a venomous femme fatale from the beginning, we can’t trust that physical attraction either.
Things become even more convoluted when the case gets under way and a sinister assassin played by Byung-hun Lee starts harassing Ben’s wife, Charlotte (Alice Eve), and attacking people who might have seen Emily and Ben together. By the time the assassin has Charlotte and Ben hog-tied in a church at the foot of a shallow grave dug between the pews, any chance of following the story has been spoiled.
It’s astounding that first-time director Shimosawa managed to snag two elderly cinematic statesmen for his debut: Hopkins and Al Pacino as Ben’s curiously detached boss. Even more astounding is how Shimosawa completely fails to use either of them to decent effect. Pacino in particular looks lost in all his scenes, frequently starring beyond the edges of the frame as if searching for direction on how he should deliver his lines. Åkerman and Lee give the only decent performances, something made all the more infuriating since both are enigmas whose motivations are never properly explained.
But I’m not willing to give up on Shimosawa just yet. I’d be lying if I said the film didn’t have a compelling visual schema. His characters live in a world of horizontal axes, of antiseptic exteriors of corporate concrete and steel and luscious interiors of opulent browns. Many scenes successfully build tension and anxiety. The problem is that Shimosawa has no idea what to do with that tension and anxiety once he gets them. Maybe his downfall was choosing a bungled script more interested in imitating the story beats of other corporate thrillers than in trying to say anything new or coherent.