Like an A-student with a plum assignment, "Frankie & Alice" star Halle Berry tears into the part of Francis Murdoch with a performance that says, "I got this one": a loose-cannon stripper suffering from multiple personalities, including one who's a racist, haughty, white Southern belle. The '70s-set film is based on a real psychotherapy case, and Berry's portrayal is pure marquee turn, full of hot jazzy light, if rarely anything penetrating, but it's immensely watchable. Even without the virtuosic vocal switchbacks (there's a scared young girl alter ego too), Berry's florid physicality has a certain silent-melodrama pull.
The film around her, however, is lamentably by-the-numbers, treated like an affliction-of-the-week TV movie by its eight (!) credited writers and directed by Geoffrey Sax as if he knew where commercials should go. (Completed more than five years ago, it's only now seeing a theatrical release.)
The unrealized potential lies in treating Frankie's background — a fraught civil rights-era upbringing and a traumatic incident steeped in racial identity — as simply a schematic mystery's third-act answer. When a well-meaning white doctor (Stellan Skarsgard) asks a marginalized, emotionally bruised black woman, "Have you ever had feelings of dissociation?," it carries a naturally charged historical weight, but one that a superficial showpiece vehicle like "Frankie & Alice" unfortunately isn't equipped to explore.
"Frankie & Alice"
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
MPAA rating: R for some sexual content, language and drug use.
Playing: At Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Rave 18, Los Angeles; Regal LA Live.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times