Perfect Stranger


Is there a genre more hilarious than the erotic thriller? It’s been in steady decline since at least the late ’80s, and recent attempts at a revival (In the Cut, Basic Instinct 2) have been little more than overheated, sordid affairs featuring past-their-prime starlets, each in the throes of a career freefall. Somewhere along the line, they all degenerated into self-parody, and the new Perfect Stranger is no exception. Halle Berry’s timid effort to dip her little toe into the deep end of the R-rated psycho-sexual pool may not ruin her career, exactly — it’s too competently made for that — but it certainly won’t erase anyone’s lingering memories of Catwoman, either.

The film ultimately isn’t even all that erotic, although it comes on to you about as strong as an Eight Mile hooker on a slow night. You can smell the pheromones right from the opening scene, when Berry’s ludicrously tough-as-nails superjournalist Rowena confronts a hypocritical politician with digital snapshots of his boyish lover. But this guy is no congressman Mark Foley: His corporate connections are enough to bury Rowena’s story, and she walks out on her job in protest. As with all movie superjournalists, it isn’t long before an extracurricular assignment falls in her lap: Her tarty childhood friend — and between-the-sheets dirt-digger — Grace (Nicki Aycox) has been murdered. With the help of her crafty techie friend, Miles (Giovanni Ribisi), she sets her sights on the purportedly sadomasochistic ad mogul Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), using herself as bait.

At least the sexual attraction part is obvious: Berry looks great, even if her wardrobe looks more like a Project Runway challenge than anything that would come out of a reporter’s closet (jaunty page-boy cap in one scene, sheer designer evening gown in the next). And Willis is the epitome of a coked-up, womanizing control-freak millionaire; presumably, it’s not much of a stretch.

But Perfect Stranger is one of those terrible mysteries in which every character you encounter is set up to be the killer. Ribisi has plenty of weird asides in which the camera hovers on him in the shadows while the booming, ominous score plays in the background. In fact, just about everyone — even the kooky comic-relief secretary, it seems — has a scene like that, so when the ridiculous denouement finally rolls around, you’ve long since thrown up your hands in exasperation. This is one of those movies where if ghosts, aliens or God were ultimately responsible for the death in question, it might actually make more sense than the twist offered up by screenwriter Todd Komarnicki. Give Berry credit for trying, but most other A-list actresses would consider a sexed-up, schizophrenic role like this to be career suicide. And they’d mostly be right.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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