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Paper trial It's slick and well directed -- and Halle Berry's beautiful as a tabloid reporter tracking a killer -- but the script for this thriller could use a rewrite

She's almost shockingly beautiful, heaven knows. Whenever she's on-screen, you can't take your eyes off her.

But Halle Berry is also talented, as "Monster's Ball" proved once and for all, to anyone dismal or sexist enough to maintain skepticism.

And all of that is on lavish display throughout "Perfect Stranger" to no avail. It's a complex suspense thriller that begins preposterously and keeps on getting worse until everything takes a sharp left final turn into "holy mackerel" territory.

None of that, mind you, stops it from being watchable. I was never once tempted to walk out (no small victory for a movie sometimes), but if I'd been watching it with a rowdier crowd, I have a feeling the sneers, scowls, hoots and wisecracks would have flown thick and furious, with my own contributions among them.

It's a very slick movie -- good-looking and polished and neatly put together and all about good-looking, polished and neatly put-together people. It's well-acted in its thrillerish way, and well-directed by James Foley, a man who has said that it was his time in Buffalo as a University at Buffalo student that made him want to become a film director. (For Foley at the top of his erratic game, see earlier films "At Close Range," "After Dark, My Sweet," and "Glenngarry Glen Ross.")

What's wrong with it couldn't have been more obvious if it had been announced by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: a script that should never have fallen on a producer's desk in this form, much less made it into production. It was written by relative tyros and desperately cried out for much more experienced hands to start questioning, at every plot turn, just what in heaven's name it thought it was doing.

It needed a rewrite or six before anyone even thought of going ahead with it. This is a movie so idiotically divorced from the real world that big-city tabloid reporters in the computer age have to adopt male bylines lest they not be taken seriously. Let's all admit that journalism isn't yet anyone's idea of gender paradise, but it has long since passed the point where hard-hitting, front-page stories are denied to people because of sex.

If Dorothy Thompson's ghost isn't otherwise occupied, she might want to haunt Berry's house.

Welcome to the "Smart Women, Foolish Choices" era of female stardom in Hollywood. Berry is far from alone in possessing a remarkable face and talent and no taste whatsoever in what movies to make or why to make them. Put her, in fact, in a club with Sandra Bullock, Hilary Swank and, occasionally, Charlize Theron.

Whatever they're doing wrong, I think the time has long since come to change course. If they're making movie choices independently, the time has come to start getting some solid advice. If they're getting advice on what to make, the time has come to jettison some advisers or start making their own decisions.

So Halle's a tabloid investigative reporter in New York City. She lives in a fancy apartment building and is just about to out a New York State Republican senator when the dude's political influence gets the story spiked.

We won't even talk about the ugly chortling nastiness she and her computer geek researcher (Giovanni Ribisi) share as they think they're about to emblazon a guy's closeted sex life all over the front pages. She's Halle Berry, and she's the movie's heroine, and that's all there is to that.

But then another story hits her between the eyes -- the one about a slutty old friend who turns up dead, just after she tells Brenda Starr's daughter that there's something really kinky about a major advertising mogul (Bruce Willis).

Undoubtedly, there are tabloid reporters in New York who really get turned on by revelations about big-shot ad moguls, but it's doubtful if those reading the paper on the subway give a strap.

Anyway, she goes undercover at the ad agency and, because she's Halle Berry, his eyes follow her the minute she walks through the door and is shown to a desk. His office seems to be Hot Manhattan Babe City -- but even in such digs, they don't see the likes of Halle every day.

Much investigating is done by going online in chat rooms and juggling of screen names. Nobody is who they seem to be. Oh, the deceit of it all.

There's a school of cinematic thought, you should know, that says that filmmakers should avoid computers, text messages, etc., on-screen. I'm with Foley, and all the other directors who go through gobs of narrative on computer screens. Computers are an integral part of the modern world. Not using them in a story is like forbidding cars on-screen -- or spoons.

It's the supposed people in the movie who are ridiculous, not the machines.

Before you can say "Victoria's Secret," Halle is having at her boyfriend ("CSI's" Gary Dourdan) right in her apartment vestibule while her research assistant spies on them. And she's being manhandled, pectorally, by her supposed boss at a private, intimate dinner a deux.

The big plot revelations are to come, some predictable, some not. Plausibility went out the window in the first half hour, so let's not even talk about it.

It's always nice to see Willis play a bad guy, if you ask me. All that smirky guile can't be up to any good. All the actors -- and the director -- do a creditable job. It's those who said "yes" to the script who ought to have their computers unplugged for the next year as punishment -- Halle, included.

Making it was a foolish choice.

Seeing it is, frankly, not a smart one. But, given the conviction of everyone making it, it's not entirely a foolish one either.



>Movie Review

"Perfect Stranger"

Review: Two stars (out of four)

Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi and Gary Dourdan in James Foley's tale of a frustrated investigative reporter out to catch a murderer. Rated R. Opens Friday in area theaters.

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