What in the world happened to Atom Egoyan? He’s in a rut, and he knows it, which might explain his willingness to helm the erotic thriller “Chloe,” his first endeavor as a director for hire.

What in the world happened to Atom Egoyan? Not long ago, he was among the most respected writer-directors in the business, pumping out a succession of terrific films like “Exotica,” “The Adjuster” and his Oscar-nominated “The Sweet Hereafter.”


Somewhere around the turn of the century, though, the eccentric Canadian transformed into a bit of a hack, victimized by his thematic obsessions and a Woody Allen-like loss of vision. It’s cost him, too, both critically and at the box office.


He’s in a rut, and he knows it, which might explain his willingness to helm the erotic thriller “Chloe,” his first endeavor as a director for hire. The results are still mixed, but at least it’s not as dull and pretentious as his last film, 2009’s “Adoration.”


He’s also working with a fine cast of big-name stars in Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and the fast-rising Amanda Seyfried, taking on her most challenging role to date by playing a hooker with anything but a heart of gold.


All three are superb. But what’s not so hot is the prurient and salacious tone of a script by Erin Cressida Wilson that expands on the themes of human and sexual disconnect she explored in her equally misogynistic debut, “Secretary.”


This time, though, any form of humor and insight has been replaced by gratuitous girl-on-girl sex and conversations so unabashedly blue they’ll turn your cheeks red.


A cynic might say such tawdriness is just a lame attempt at covering up a script that has no clothes. But I believe Wilson is sincere in her frank approach to issues of intimacy and fidelity. I just wish she had done it in a more realistic, less unintentionally laughable way,


I also wish Moore had been spared the indignity of playing a woman as weak and pathetic as Catherine Stewart, a Toronto gynecologist who lets her insecurities get the best of her when she hires a call girl to test her husband’s faithfulness.


Moore is simply too sexy and intelligent to be playing someone that desperate. But that doesn’t stop her from taking a respectable stab at it.


You go along with her, too. Or at least you do initially, as Catherine, suspicious her musicologist husband (Neeson) is fiddling with a student, hires Seyfried’s Chloe to lure her beloved into an affair.


But as the story grows more preposterous, with Catherine not only getting off on Chloe’s graphic descriptions of her seductions of David and falling for her sexual surrogate. It’s all you can do not to laugh.


But laugh, you do, all the way up to the big, third-act twist you can see coming a mile away. By then, it’s all you can do not to groan, as “Chloe” quickly devolves into a “Fatal Attraction” rehash, complete with sharp implements and overwrought emotions.


It’s disappointing to see, especially in how it relates to Egoyan, as he steers “Chloe’s” edgy premise toward an ending that's as ridiculous as it is conventional. That’s just not Egoyan’s style, and it shows in the finale’s woeful lack of suspense.


That might not have mattered, though, if “Chloe” came bearing anything more than pure titillation. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching Seyfried and Moore engage in hot, sweaty sex, but it looks too much like soft porn, a la “Showgirls.”


Still, that doesn’t prevent “Chloe” from scoring as a smutty pleasure, as you delight in trying to guess what preposterous thing will happen next.


It’s also nice to see Neeson in something other than a vigilante or superhero flick. True, he’s not the least bit believable as a music professor, but he renders David mysterious enough to keep you wondering if he’s as decent as he seems.


The real surprise, though, is Seyfried. After paying her dues in stupid teen comedies, sudsy soaps (“Dear John”) and ill-conceived musicals (“Mamma Mia”), the busty blond beauty finally makes the crossover into adult drama, baring both her body and her soul as the emotionally damaged Chloe.


She definitely has a future, but the same might not be true of Egoyan, who needs to snap out of his decade-long slump soon or it will be him, not Chloe, who’s out walking the streets.


Patriot Ledger writer Al Alexander may be reached at aalexander@ledger.com.


CHLOE (R for nudity, language and sexual situations.) Cast includes Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried. Directed by Atom Egoyan. 2.5 stars out of 4.