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A Sleek, Gorgeous and Empty ‘Enemy’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Everything that might have set “Sleeping With the Enemy” apart and made it memorable--textured central characters, psychological depth or a shred of believability--has been swept aside in the rush to make the movie a luxury item, sleekly gorgeous, blankly watchable, not unlike its star Julia Roberts.

“Sleeping With the Enemy” (citywide) began as a gripping, well-crafted story about a wife’s desperate try to begin her life again after the damage from an abusive husband, but its own author would barely recognize it now. Producer Leonard Goldberg and director Joseph Ruben have gentrified the modest setting of Nancy Price’s novel; her believable fiction has been tarted up into flossy melodrama, the better to showcase the unassuming, extremely bankable talents of its star.

So now, in Ronald Bass’ screenplay, Roberts’ sadistic husband Patrick Bergin is one of the super-rich, stalking around their black-granite-and-chrome Cape Cod beach house in a dark suit and long coat like a beetle against the sand. He’s only one loose bolt away from Ron Silver’s gun nut in “Blue Steel,” and no less compulsive about his home-gym workouts. Is there a subliminal message here about the perils of overtraining?

Alternately petted and punched, never knowing when her next attack will come, Roberts keeps up their image of the perfect couple in public, but thinks only about escape. The staging of that break is terrific but the details of her new life in Cedar Falls, Iowa, under a new name, are pure cloud cuckoo-land.

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Over-production has inflated what the novel kept so carefully real; her shabby, affordable apartment has become a two-story heartland dream house. Supposedly, Roberts has put money away toward her escape; however, Bergin must believe she has died, not left him, so the money must never be missed. Yet in Iowa she has cash enough for three months’ rent, for clothes, for almost every need except a car. How much did she save, a thousand or so every week from the grocery money? This is the sort of stuff that tries an audience’s good-will sorely.

“Sleeping With the Enemy” (rated R for wife abuse, terror, one brief sex scene) strains more than credulity; it treats the real trauma of abuse as little more than a plot device, no more grueling than Roberts’ job as a Hollywood Boulevard hooker in “Pretty Woman.” Yes, she’s skittish at first when Kevin Anderson, the smitten, supportive drama teacher next door, is understandably attracted to her, but there’s no sense of the deep psychic disturbance that abuse can trigger.

Well, Julia Roberts in an overblown fairy tale hasn’t exactly been an unprofitable formula so far--it’s only sad that a potentially rich idea has been sacrificed in the process; blown so far out of proportion that every shred of its singularity is gone.

After Ruben’s direction of that admirable cautionary tale, “The Stepfather,” and of “True Believer,” it might be hoped that his talent for tension and for capturing darkly driven American men might be turned loose again here. Although Ruben is fine at mood and menace, the movie muffs its chances at the really diabolical anxiety it should generate when Bergin begins to suspect the truth. Also, since the script has reduced Bergin to a stock figure of menace, any sense of the duel between hunter and hunted is lost, and with it Roberts’ character’s sense of personal triumph at the film’s end.

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Bergin, who was aloof and strangely uncharismatic as Sir Richard Burton in “Mountains of the Moon,” is even more so here. Roberts, playing a damaged soul, conveys no sense of that pain. If she has access to darker emotional experiences, she hasn’t been encouraged to draw on them in her acting, which, so far, is all bland compliance and dazzling superficial warmth.

‘Sleeping With the Enemy’

Julia Roberts: Sara/Laura

Patrick Bergin: Martin

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Kevin Anderson: Ben

Elizabeth Lawrence: Chloe

A 20th Century Fox release. Producer Leonard Goldberg. Executive producer Jeffrey Chernov. Director Joseph Ruben. Screenplay Ronald Bass, based on the novel by Nancy Price. Camera John W. Lindley. Production design Doug Kraner. Editor George Bowers. Costumes Richard Hornung. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Art director Joseph P. Lucky, set decorator Lee Poll. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (for wife abuse, terror, one brief sex scene).

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‘ENEMY’ DIRECTOR

Joseph Ruben’s 15-year wait for a big-budget, big-studio movie finally pays off. F8


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