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April 13, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | April 13, 2007 |

A lot of credence is given to the auteur theory, the belief that the director is the ultimate guiding force of a film and its sole (or strongest) creative voice; the words and images are under his oversight, and the result is a product of his vision. Obviously, that’s an extremist view that doesn’t fully take into account the writing, acting, producing, score, editing, lighting, set design, and everything else, but it’s not always wrong. For instance, a Scorsese film is pretty uniquely Scorsese. But the theory is also deeply flawed. How else to explain the fact that James Foley, who helmed Glengarry Glen Ross, could be the same “artist” (and I use that so, so loosely) who’s responsible for the risible, idiotic faux-thriller Perfect Stranger? There’s no better argument for the importance of good source material than realizing that the man who directed Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey in the David Mamet classic also thought it was a good idea to run Bruce Willis and Halle Berry through another lifeless, plodding potboiler that should’ve gone straight to Lifetime. The script from Todd Komarnicki (only his second) is fraught with the kind of clich├ęs, pointless scenes, and murky plotting that halfway-decent screenwriting software is supposed to polish. The twists are inevitable but unengaging, and the big reveal tries to be shocking but winds up feeling like a cheat in its overwrought attempt to bring in some kind of larger meaning.

Rowena Somethingorother (Berry) is a reporter for the New York Courier, which appears to be an unspecified hybrid of legit rag with tabloid pap. The film isn’t seven minutes old when it’s revealed that Rowena publishes her articles under a pseudonym, at which point whatever fragile grip the film had on plausibility is severed. Why does a headstrong, accomplished woman write under a man’s name? Why are her editors OK with this? Wasn’t this the basic plot of “Remington Steele”? There are so many possible answers, none satisfying, and the tag team of Foley and Komarnicki, who seem to be operating at the learning-disability level, never go into it. Sure, I get that it’s their first declaration about the subjectivity of identity, but it’s an unnecessary one. One night Rowena runs into childhood friend Grace (Nicki Aycox) at the subway station, where Grace helpfully dispenses with some clunky exposition: Grace has been having a fling with the very rich and very married Harrison Hill (Willis), an ad exec, but he’s decided to cut her off, so Grace provides Rowena with a stack of sexually provocative emails and hints that Harrison’s wife, Mia (Paula Miranda), might be the cause of Harrison’s sudden coldness. Rowena and Grace aren’t even that close, but that doesn’t stop Grace from giving Rowena a nice investigative set-up. And wouldn’t you know it, ol’ Grace winds up dead a few days later, poisoned and hacked up. Maybe Rowena the investigative reporter should user her undercover skills to dig up some dirt on Harrison Hill.

Rowena enlists her research assistant and tech guru, Miles (Giovanni Ribisi), to help her get inside Hill’s life because Grace met Hill online and Rowena wants to do the same. Yes, that’s right, Foley and Komarnicki are recycling what is already a hoary old chestnut in the digital age, the online meet-up. Chalk it up to rights issues, but movies about the online community pretty much never resemble the actual thing, and when they do, you wind up with a 90-minute ad, like You’ve Got Mail. Miles, who’s got an obvious crush on Rowena that goes way beyond earnest and into creepy, establishes an “IOL” account for Rowena, who soon enough starts chatting via instant messages with Hill (she got his screen name from Grace) and a few other random strangers. It’s patently unbelievable that a character of Rowena’s intellect and drive would have had no exposure to the chatting devices that most adults and more than a few children mastered about a decade ago, but then again, she’s also apparently the kind of woman who finds security in a male pen name. Komarnicki’s script is curiously dated, from the use of new-but-not-really technology to the awkward sexual politics.

So, anyway, Rowena gets a temp job under a phony name at Hill’s ad agency and proceeds to bat her eyes and not button her shirt and do whatever she can to get the man’s attention, which of course she does. She’s now using two fake personas to get close to Hill, in person and online, and they’re equally dull. Berry’s a performer, not an actor, and her range is limited to looking frightened or looking bored, peppered with the occasional outburst of irrational anger. At the same time, Willis is almost too good at playing the kind of suave prick with no greater motivation than his own success; there’s nothing for him to do here but sleepwalk through the part, and that’s what he does. He’s only as menacing as the cheap music stings and lazy editing can make him, which is to say, not very. Ribisi actually has the meatiest role as the combination sidekick-pervert, whose obsession with Rowena could be masking a deeper truth (cue cheap music sting).

Komarnicki’s screenplay tries to inject tension in the requisite places — Rowena sneaks into Hill’s office, etc. — but tension is hard to manufacture when nothing seems to have any consequence. What characters do from scene to scene rarely impacts what happens later; you could walk in for the last 20 minutes and it’d be like you’d been there the entire time. Add to that the film’s laughable lack of technological know-how and its weird half-misogyny, and Perfect Stranger becomes the epitome of disposable entertainment, only without the entertainment.

Daniel “The Shark” Carlson is the lead critic for Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

The Killer in Me is the Killer in You

Perfect Stranger / Daniel Carlson

Film | April 13, 2007 |



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