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MOVIE REVIEW : Erotic Thriller ‘Sliver’ Leaves a Lot to Be Desired : This wrongheaded version of Ira Levin’s pulp novel may be about voyeurism, but it doesn’t provide much to watch.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Anybody ever tell you you have a nice butt?” says spiffy bachelor Zeke (William Baldwin) to his new neighbor Carly (Sharon Stone) during an aerobic workout at a local health club. As sexy foretalk goes, this remarkably subtle come-on is par for the course in “Sliver,” the new erotic thriller that somehow manages to make voyeurism seem about as exciting as one of Cher’s infomercials.

Perhaps it was different in the movie’s pre-trimmed days: “Sliver” (citywide) was headed for an NC-17 rating; now, minus a few quivering buttocks and sordid sundries, it’s rated R. Why bother to make a film about sex and then capitulate to the ratings board by frantically toning down the sex? Maybe the film wouldn’t have been any better before the cuts, but, this way, the film has become the butt of its own butts.

The 1971 Ira Levin pulp thriller on which the film is based was a workmanlike piece of intrigue that attempted to do for Manhattan’s “sliver” buildings--narrow, wedgelike high-rises--what Levin did for spooky old sprawls like the Dakota in “Rosemary’s Baby.” It’s a page-turner for people with not a lot of feeling in their fingertips. Nothing in it really takes hold except for the central idea--the owner of the sliver where there have been a string of mysterious deaths has set up a hidden camera system to spy on every square inch of his tenants’ at-home lives.

More so than for books, voyeurism is better suited as a subject for the movies. Isn’t all moviegoing voyeuristic? The saving grace of the film version of “Sliver” (rated R for strong sexuality, and for language and violence) is that at least it doesn’t try to fob itself off as a serioso morality play; it’s smarmily upfront about its intentions, even though the follow-through lacks wallop. But maybe being lowdown isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After a stretch of grapple-and-smooch scenes you may actually long for something strait-laced--like, say, character development or dialogue that makes you giggle where giggles were intended.

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How’s this for wrongheadedness? In “Sliver,” Stone plays a woman who has to be lured into sexual intrigue. Carly’s a book editor who recently ended a seven-year marriage and moved into her sliver. She spends lonely evenings at home practicing her golf swing.

Casting Stone as a lovelorn wastrel waiting to be ravaged makes about as much sense as casting Madonna as Emily Dickinson. Her appeal, as this film confirms by negative example, is based on her taunt and sizzle, on her being the aggressor. Stone has the fresh-faced looks of a Grace Kelly, but there’s something predatory about her deluxe beauty--she has the smarts of a control freak who knows a hundred different ways to tie you up. Stone doesn’t show much keenness for her role here, maybe because Carly’s psychosexual dynamics are so ill-defined. Even her big set-piece is a botch: Dining in a crowded, pricey restaurant with Zeke, he wheedles her into surreptitiously removing her panties. She doesn’t show much enjoyment. Was the room too drafty perhaps?

Besides Zeke, the other nosy suitor in Carly’s sliver is Jack (Tom Berenger), a best-selling true-crime writer who gets his kicks bearing down upon Carly unrecognized while she takes her morning jog in Central Park. He’s first introduced to her at a luncheon as, jokingly, “the devil” and, after a while, you figure--well, this is Ira Levin territory, maybe he is the devil.

But the script for “Sliver” was written by Joe Eszterhas, from what appear to be dollops and oddments from his “Basic Instinct” scrapheap, and, as in that film only more so, nothing in the murder plot really adds up. (Levin’s plotting has been considerably reworked--if that’s the word.) Between Jack and Zeke, enough red herrings are strewn about to stock a fish market, but the clues are all screwed up. Pity the poor director, Phillip Noyce, whenever an actor importuned him with: “What’s my motivation?”

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Noyce (“Dead Calm,” “Patriot Games”) is a capable craftsman with a gift for taut, creepy storytelling, but he can’t do much with the mix ‘n’ match garble here. He’s probably too honest to try to put one over on the audience; in the end, he seems to sink into the mire along with the rest of us. An even sleazier approach might have worked better; you keep waiting for some of that old “9 1/2 Weeks"/ “Wild Orchid"-style jiggle to steam the screen. It gets so bad that you even hold out for a purring, purse-lipped Mickey Rourke to make a cameo. (No such bad luck.)

A funnier approach would have been even better. Is it really such a deep-dish revelation that we all “like to watch”? The people who made “Sliver” are mesmerized by their own prurience. They don’t really get into the kicky nuttiness of spying on other people, of lording it over other people’s secrecies. The multichannel action on the video monitors is surprisingly perfunctory. (Imagine what Hitchcock or DePalma, or even Warhol, might have done with dozens of screens winking their private dramas at us simultaneously.) There’s no emotional pull to the neo-Gothic world in “Sliver,” where people connect up by video monitor and computer with occasional forays in the flesh. It’s no news that we like to watch. But first you must give us something worth watching.

‘Sliver’

Sharon Stone: Carly

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William Baldwin: Zeke

Tom Berenger: Jack

Polly Walker: Vida

A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Robert Evans production. Director Phillip Noyce. Producer Robert Evans. Executive producers Howard W. Koch Jr., Joe Eszterhas. Screenplay Eszterhas, from the novel by Ira Levin. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Editor Richard Francis-Bruce. Costumes Deborah L. Scott. Music Howard Shore. Production design Paul Sylbert. Art director Peter Lansdown Smith. Set decorator Lisa Fischer. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

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MPAA-rated R (for strong sexuality, and for language and violence.)


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