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This Weekend’s Movies: “Perfect Stranger”

September 12, 2007

When I told a friend I’d rented “that bad Halle Berry movie,” she responded, “which one?” It seems that Berry’s career consists of terrible movies and an Oscar. Perfect Stranger continues this streak. The fault isn’t (entirely) Berry’s. This was not a vanity project like Hudson Hawk or an ego-venture like Battlefield Earth. It’s just a deeply stupid, lazy movie that lands a major star in the title role and then does nothing to showcase her charms and/or abilities. This is perplexing to me since, at least one of those tasks is pretty damn easy. Halle Berry. She’s hot. Make her look hot in the movie and don’t distract from her hot-lookingness. How hard is this? I’m pretty sure the guy in the crash-helmet rattling a cup outside the 7-11 could manage it. Alas, it eludes veteran director James Foley and screenwriter Tom Komarnicki and story writer Joe Bokenkamp (that’s a lot to type, so I’m just going to refer to them as “the idiot writers” from now on, ok?)

The plot is so riven with holes, gaps, and inconsistencies that pausing to point them all out would stretch this review out to epic lengths, so let me just outline the story and then I’ll unleash the hounds. Berry plays Rowena Price, an award-winning reporter for some New York fishwrap who publishes under a male pseudonym. The movie opens with Rowena confronting a senator with evidence of his homosexuality (well get to this later) and secretly taping his confession (get to that later, too). Recording the whole thing remotely from New York is her friend/work husband/stalker/object of hatred Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) who cackles and announces that “We got him!” The newroom erupts in applause. Apparently, this newspaper is owned by the Bush Administration. Anyway, the story gets spiked (we’ll get to that later) and Rowena quits in a huff. Later that evening, she meets an old friend/romantic rival/object of hatred Grace (Nikki Aycox). Grace claims that she’s been having a hot and heavy online romance with Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). Problem is, Hill wants to break it off and Grace is unhappy with this, so she asks Rowena to do an expose on him. Then Grace ends up dead. Rowena suspects Hill.

Going undercover, Rowena assumes the identity of Katherine the world’s hottest temp. She’s immediately placed in the executive offices, as temps are wont to be placed, and sets about seducing Harrison to find evidence of his guilt. She also assumes the online identity of Veronica, a slinky cyber-siren and sets about seducing Harrison to find…well, you know. All the while, Rowena is having ugly flashbacks to her childhood and her molesting father. A propos of nothing? Oh, but your cleverness is obviously outmatched by the Idiot Writers. See, after Rowena has assumedly accumulated evidence that Harrison killed Grace (more later), we learn the movie’s head-spinning plot-twist:

(SPOILERS)

Grace was killed by Rowena! Yes! It is true (later). Grace knew that Rowena’s mother murdered her father to end his sexual abuse of Rowena and Grace had the goods on her (later). Rowena killed her to protect herself and her mother (later). This is explained to the audience by Miles (later), who then tries to sexually blackmail Rowena. Unfortunately, he does so while she has a kitchen knife in her hand. She kills him, movie ends.

All right, that sound you just heard was me racking the slide on the ol’ shotgun of scrutiny®.

Now, plenty of movies have used the malleability of identity to good dramatic effect (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Boys Don’t Cry), and there have even been some good ones about the havoc (inadvertently) wrecked by the anonymity and unrealism of the internet (Shattered Glass, LOL might be another, but I don’t know, since Netflix refuses to ship it to me…are you reading this Netflix guy?) Perfect Stranger whiffs it on both fronts. There’s nothing provocative here. If nothing else, you’d expect a movie about a (really, really hot) woman investigating a serial philanderer to at least be a sexy erotic thriller. Mmmmnope. Rowena’s pursuit of Hill (online and off) is fairly chaste and devoid of any real heat. She seems skeeved out by the notion of cybersex, which is understandable, but then why use it as one of the wheels of your plotline?

And the movie is stupid to the point of nonsensical. Let’s address some of the points I mentioned above (ducks in a shooting gallery). Rowena is supposedly a journalist, but during her big “reporter scene” shows not the slightest idea of how journalism works, let alone the concepts of “off the record” or “illegally wiretapping.” Later, she learns that her story is spiked because her star witness (!!!!) has recanted his story (!!!!!). Apparently the Idiot Writers have mistaken journalism for law. She also implies that the story was killed because the owner of the paper is a major contributor to that senator’s campaign. Okay, Idiot Writers? And you, too Director Foley? Politicians do what their contributors tell them to do. Not vice versa. That wouldn’t make sense.

The world of advertising looks hopelessly quaint, too. Harrison Hill’s agency is described as “the largest ad firm in New York!” Now in that blissful decade I lived in Manhattan–before the government made me a warrior-bureaucrat—I dated an ad exec for a major firm. The largest in New York? No. They had offices in a dozen countries. The world of advertising is global, not local. But why expect the Idiot Writers to know something like that when they display the same command of the internet as Wargames did a good two decades ago.

The plot, while hardly a terribly intricate thing, doesn’t really work on its own terms. The incest macguffin doesn’t really need to be there and just serves to convolute what might have been a nicely streamlined motive. Grace is described as having seduced Rownea’s boyfriend. Had Rowena killed her for that reason alone it would have made sense and put a bit of an edge on this milquetoast movie. Instead we’re asked to believe that Grace is blackmailing Rowena and her mother. But does anyone really believe the cops would go after an elderly woman in a nursing home for killing her sexually abusive husband twenty-five years ago?

A bigger problem is the characters. Or the lack thereof. As Harrison Hill, Bruce Willis glides through the film, knowing no part of this train wreck will stick to him. Unfortunately, this makes his character a cipher, a stereotype of the Powerful Manhattan Executive. Everyone else barely registers. Finally, there is Miles. Miles at first seems to be stuck in the Friend Zone (see the movie Just Friends for an explanation of this) with Rowena. But this is Giovanni Ribisi, after all. Even his mom-and-apple-pie character in Saving Private Ryan looked like he probably has a court-order forcing him to warn his new neighbors when he moves into a neighborhood. Sure enough, early on in the movie we see him watching Rowena as she has sex with her boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/object of her hatred. For her part, Rowena treats Miles alternately with affection and pure, unbridled hatred. Their exchanges tend to go along these lines:

“Ro, I don’t think you should keep seeing that guy. He’s not good for you.”

“Shut up, Miles! That’s none of your business! Do you understand me! I fucking hate you! You hear? I WILL KILL YOU!!!! Oh, and Miles? Be a sweetie and fix my e-mail, okay? You’re the best. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Seriously. She needs to be medicated. Even late in the movie when she discovers Miles’s truly heroic creepy shrine to her (I mean, this thing is major…makes the one I erected to Suzanne Pleshette when I was 14 look like a notebook doodle), she doesn’t flee in abject terror—which would be the logical response—instead she screams at him some more. What the hell kind of relationship do these people have?

And here we come to Berry. I really can’t bring myself to eviscerate her, no matter how much a failure her performance. This is, after all, a woman who made a personal appearance at the Razzies to pick up her award for Catwoman. You have to admire someone who does that. Still, the sad truth is no matter how much she emotes, how hard she tries, how cute she looks in her newsboy cap, she’s still a lukewarm presence at best. For a woman as beautiful as she is, her sex scenes are strangely off-turning. The big scene in Monsters Ball (perennial favorite of Nerve/Salon/Onion/Mediabistro online personals trawlers) is mostly animalistic rutting—with Billy Bob Thornton, no less. And her sole love scene here—a meaningless and pointless hook-up with her (ex?) boyfriend—is equally cringe-inducing as she asks coquettishly “Like that, don’t’cha?” while she wraps her legs around him. It’s like watching a beige octopus attacking a sea lion.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a theme that runs through many of my reviews—the sheer stupidity of the filmmakers. That’s not deliberate on my part. It’s indicative of what seems to be an overall dumbing-down of the movies. Gone are the days when even throwaway genre pictures like Alligator and The French Connection had at least some thought put into them. And the sad thing is that stupid filmmakers bring down the actors around them. Berry may not be a talent for the ages, but she could probably have sold this story had it been exercised with a modicum of intelligence and talent.

TEMPORAL ANOMALY: Okay, this is laugh-out-loud idiotic. The big exposition of why and how Rowena killed Grace is delivered by Miles. While he explains it in an uninterrupted monologue, we see him and Rowena in her bathroom, then cut to them lounging in her hallway, then cut to them preparing dinner. How much time passed while he delivered this two-minute bit of dialogue?

3 comments

  1. Head. Hurts. Ugh.


  2. Imagine how I feel. I had to watch this thing twice.


  3. YAY. I will take this review as a HUGE shout out to me, since I recommended throuth Tenfeet that you do it.

    I saw Monster’s Ball in the theater with a male anthropologist friend. We literally covered our faces with our coats during the sex scene.

    Halle Berry–so pretty, so untalented. The only performance of hers I ever liked was her portrayal of the crack head in Jungle Fever. But yes, she is very very nice to look at.



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