Sharon Stone is perhaps the only star in non-porn-industry Hollywood who can truthfully say that her vagina made her famous. Playing Catherine “Fuck of the Century” Tramell in 1992’s Basic Instinct, Stone uncrossed her legs, teased us with a glimpse of her nethers, and emerged from a dozen years of guest spots on TV shows, small parts in big movies, and leads in crap to briefly reign near the top of the Hollywood ladder, only to soon resume a career of guest spots on TV shows, small parts in big movies, and leads in crap. From the time of its release, it was obvious that Basic Instinct called for a sequel; the film had made over $350 million worldwide and become one of the most talked-about and controversial movies of its time. But no one could have guessed that it would take 14 years of rotating casts, directors, and screenwriters — not to mention a multimillion-dollar lawsuit — to get that sequel made or how strangely enervated it would turn out to be. Never have Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas been so sorely missed.
Part of what makes the original film such enjoyable trash is the tension between its form and content, the glaring contrast between the slick craftsmanship of Verhoeven’s Hitchcock-inspired direction and the crude dialogue and lurid situations of Eszterhas’ cliched, misogynistic script. It achieved a rare and possibly unduplicatable balance between the tropes of nouveau-riche swank and those of Swank magazine. It’s probably inevitable that the sequel would tip in one direction or the other; what’s positively maddening is that the tilt is toward the tony-thriller mode and away from the original’s sleazy eroticism. For a film that’s ostensibly about sexual obsession and kinky power games, Basic Instinct 2 is tragically limp.
The film opens with its most tense and erotic scene, as Catherine speeds through a tunnel (nothing Freudian there) driving a super-cool Spyker C8 Spyder, a doped-up soccer star in the passenger seat. She guides his hand to her crotch as she careens through the empty, late-night streets of London and, as she comes, crashes her $300,000 sports car through a giant glass box (?) and off a bridge, into the Thames. She escapes and swims to the surface, looking, ironically, like an angel ascending to Heaven, but her paramour drowns, and the next morning she’s questioned by Detective Roy Washburn (David Thewlis), who wants nothing more than to lock her up for a very long time. The cops bring in a psychiatrist named Michael Glass (David Morrissey) to interview her, and she instantly sizes him up as an excellent candidate for her next game of sexual cat-and-mouse.
This time around, the game involves Dr. Glass; his ex-wife Denise (Indira Varma); Denise’s current boyfriend, an ethically questionable reporter named Adam Towers (Hugh Dancy); Detective Washburn; and the mystery surrounding a former patient of Dr. Glass’ who, seven years earlier, beat his pregnant girlfriend to death with a brick. Since Catherine is the only character from the original film who returns, you’d expect that the story would be built around her, but it often feels more like she was worked into an existing script; she dominates the early scenes and returns to reveal her machinations at the end but, for a long stretch through the middle of the film, she disappears almost entirely, as Glass works to unravel his own non-Catherine-related mysteries.
Not only does this bait-and-switch rob us of the reason we came to see the movie, but Morrissey is far too placid an actor to carry these scenes. Blandly handsome in a way that improbably combines Liam Neeson’s sharp brow and narrow eyes with the slight doughiness of a younger Paul McCartney, Morrissey takes the camera reasonably well, but he lacks the believable sleaziness that allowed Michael Douglas’ Detective Nick Curran to compete with Catherine on her own turf. (In a perhaps too-cute wink at the original, Dr. Glass is nominated for the Douglas Chair at an unnamed university. He doesn’t deserve it.) Douglas connected with his role because he shared the same vanity and macho pride; he had something to prove just as his character did — namely, that he could be a credible sexual equal for a gorgeous woman 14 years his junior. Morrissey lacks Douglas’ swagger and what he substitutes is a very British stiffness that has no place in Catherine’s world. Though we can believe she would want to break through his stolid exterior and reveal the primal urges he denies, it takes far too long — almost until the end of the film — for his stiff upper lip to crumble. Much more interesting than Morrissey — though not very sexy — is Thewlis, playing an amoral cop who’s willing to break any rules necessary to bring in the bad guys. Thewlis has the right qualities for seedy, disreputable characters — as is perhaps best seen in Mike Leigh’s Naked — and, intellectually if not sexually, he seems a proper adversary for Catherine, yet the plot only gives them one real scene together.
Much of the blame here lies with screenwriters Henry Bean and Leora Barish, a married couple with a mixed track record onscreen. Bean wrote and directed The Believer and has also worked on some above-average thrillers like Internal Affairs and Deep Cover. Barish wrote Desperately Seeking Susan and hasn’t done much since. The couple’s last collaboration was the script for the 1995 film Venus Rising, a sci-fi action pic (starring Morgan Fairchild!) that has a 3.2 out of 10 user rating on the IMDb and that I am not a nearly dedicated enough critic to watch. Bean and Barish can put together a twisty, complex plot, but they’re not salacious enough to give us the movie this needed to be. They’ve written too many twists and developed them too slowly to maintain suspense. Worse, though, is the director, Michael Caton-Jones, a mediocrity whose films run the gamut from silly but watchable (City by the Sea) to the merely ludicrous (The Jackal). Caton-Jones seems to think that the way to make a sequel to Basic Instinct is to mimic Verhoeven’s use of moody lighting and dramatic architecture (suggestive, too — Dr. Glass’ office is in the unbelievably phallic Swiss Re tower) and keep things glossy and high-toned. It’s telling that he’s exchanged the warm, often rococo sets of the original for interiors that are mostly cool steel, glass, and slate. He recycles the Bernard Herrmannesque theme Jerry Goldsmith composed for the original, but that’s about the only thing that feels right. When he includes the requisite sexual innuendo (as when Glass takes Catherine’s coat at a party and she asks him to slip her lighter, shaped like Big Ben, into her pocket) it’s clear that his heart isn’t in it. Most disappointingly, the film’s sex scenes are short and perfunctory, and his use of Stone seems politely avuncular; in interviews, she’s said she had to convince him to re-add nude scenes that he’d cut, yet they are still too few, too short, and too tame to show Catherine’s erotic voracity. We get little glimpses of naughtiness when we’ve been led to expect the whole megillah. It’s as if Stone’s vagina stormed off the set in the first week of shooting and hid out in its trailer until the wrap party.
But what about Stone? At 48, she’s still in terrific shape, but she’s looking too thin and too tanned, and her face is a bit drawn. Though there are no clear signs of cosmetic surgery, she at times has that arch, witchy look that some inept surgeon has given the once-gorgeous Jessica Lange. Stone still carries an air of sexual menace, but she doesn’t have the haughty, Kim Novak glamour that made her so cool and desirable 14 years ago; with her slutty clothes and stylishly choppy haircut, she now looks more like a middle-aged woman trying desperately to hold onto her youth. She’s lost the insouciance that made her so provocative in the original, and this change in her aura combines with elements of the plot to make Catherine seem, for a while, disconcertingly vulnerable. In the first film, Catherine was immune to psychological understanding — psychology was just one of the tools she used to manipulate others — but here we see her admitting that she has a problem — the “risk addiction” that Glass has diagnosed — and submitting to therapy. And, while it’s pretty clear from the start that this is a con designed to wiggle past Glass’ defenses, it’s still a show of potential weakness that betrays the essence of the character.
Catherine Tramell captured the attention and the imagination of audiences in 1992 by being one of the first screen women in those pre-“Sex and the City” days who had the audacity and the emotional detachment to fuck like a man. Though her amoral submission to her own appetites made her seem not quite human, it also made her more than a woman, a sexually- and gender-ambiguous figure whose self-confident sexuality gave her power over both sexes: the woman as satyr. A movie like this needs to be made, as the first film was, by men who really get off on this premise, men who are little better than rutting pigs. Bean, Barish, and Caton-Jones, to our disappointment (but perhaps their own relief), are simply not piggish enough.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Basic Instinct 2 / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()