Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Perfect Stranger'

2 stars (out of four)

For its big finish, the screwy erotic thriller "Perfect Stranger" goes for the murder mystery equivalent of the double axel followed by a triple lutz, a quadruple toe loop and, for all I know, a quintuple bypass. It doesn't quite come off. It's like watching a skater skid on his hindquarters straight across the ice, fwoomp, over the rail, clear past the penalty box and smack into the third row. The surprise ending is such a pretzel, it may in fact still be ending.

Rumor has it director James Foley shot three different solutions, indicting three different killers in the story's central murder. Just hearing that news sent me into a "Clue" flashback featuring Lesley Ann Warren with a candlestick in the billiard room. And speaking of flashbacks, "Perfect Crime" sets a record for least amount of time elapsing between a plot point and its on-screen reiteration. Two minutes after Halle Berry's reporter character meets up with an old friend, a cryptic gamin who dumps a steaming pile of scandalous backstory in Berry's lap, a snippet of their subway platform conversation is repeated for the benefit of narrative clarity. Already we need an info-flashback to bail us out? This can't bode well for what screenwriter Todd Komarnicki has in store.

For a while "Perfect Stranger" gets by on the furrowed-brow determination of its cast and the workmanlike sheen provided by the director, James Foley. His good films include "After Dark, My Sweet" and "Glengarry Glen Ross." This one's a couple of steps down: fairly diverting until it starts becoming ridiculous. Then it's just ridiculous.

Berry plays Rowena Price, investigative ace for a New York Post-y paper called the Courier. Judging from her Upper West Side palace, the Courier gig (she writes under a male pseudonym) pays somewhere in the low eight figures. And speaking of figures, Berry's is essentially the point of "Perfect Stranger." She slinks her way through a minefield of predatory males and, to underscore the obvious, people are always saying things to the reporter like, "Hey, you sure look great in that dress."

Rowena learns from childhood pal Grace (Nicki Aycox) that she's been sleeping with Manhattan's lord of advertising, Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis, sporting a rug whose centerpiece appears to be an arrow pointing at its owner's forehead). The gamin and Mr. Big met online. When Grace turns up dead, Rowena poses as a temp and, with supernatural ease, catches the perpetually roving eye of prime suspect Hill, a man who never, ever seems to leave his office or have sex behind windows equipped with curtains.

Another ruse involves Rowena posing as chat-room sexpot "Veronica," ensnaring Hill in an online web of deceit and lust. Is she risking her life, and that of her insanely resourceful computer-hacker newspaper colleague played by Giovanni Ribisi? A more pertinent question: Does the film contain a scene of Berry engaging in cybersex at the suspected killer's behest? At one point the answer, apparently, was "yes." A second or two of this footage remains in the overseas trailers. But in its final domestic cut "Perfect Stranger" has been … domesticated. The story is ruled by wormy geeks "interconnected online," as Rowena writes, but "disconnected in life." It lacks the rutting nuttiness of "Basic Instinct," even as it recycles much of that film's kiss-or-kill premise.

At one point Ribisi, whose perpetual scrunched-up look of skepticism becomes a kind of meta-critique, patiently explains recent plot developments to Berry. Midway through the rehash she curls up on his lap in a fetal position. Who can blame her? A movie star should put up with only so much exposition unpacked awkwardly late in a chic but hollow game.



'Perfect Stranger'

Directed by James Foley; screenplay by Todd Komarnicki; photographed by Anastas Michos; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Antonio Pinto; production design by Bill Groom; produced by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. A Sony Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, some disturbing violent images and language).

Rowena Price - Halle Berry

Harrison Hill - Bruce Willis

Miles Haley - Giovanni Ribisi

Cameron - Gary Dourdan

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