There's a scene deep into "Never Talk to Strangers" (you may have already dozed off) in which Antonio Banderas' character, Tony, has abused Rebecca De Mornay's Sarah, sending her packing. Inexplicably, she returns to his grungy loft, slaps him, takes down his jeans and bites his backside. Sure enough, they're off in the over-the-top realm of carnal corn, and the mystery becomes, who let Joe Eszterhas take over this movie?
No one, it turns out, and believe it or not, more's the pity. Eszterhas demonstrated with "Showgirls" and "Jade" that at least he tackles his erotic thrill shows with a trashy exuberance. The folks behind "Never Talk to Strangers" have some misguided notion that they're doing something with loftier goals, and in this genre, nothing is more deadly than pretension.
Sarah, a criminal psychologist brilliant everywhere but in her personal life, gets involved with Tony despite her better judgment. He's a charmer with a fuzzy past and a talent for making every gesture seem just a wee bit ominous. Her jealous pal Cliff (Dennis Miller) does a slow burn while Tony makes nice with her, and her estranged father (Len Cariou), who also keeps a skeleton or two in his closet, struggles to re-insinuate himself into her life. Sarah's current assignment--she works for an outfit pointedly named the Veer Institute--is evaluating a serial killer trying to cop Hannibal Lecter's best moves from "Silence of the Lambs" (alas, Harry Dean Stanton is not up to the job).
So it's to the surprise of no one but Sarah that her life Veers into unpleasantness. She receives--gasp!--a bouquet of dead flowers; even more perturbing incidents prod her to discover who's behind all these shenanigans. Trouble is, it's pretty obvious if you pay attention.
The film's biggest surprise is that it marks the Hollywood directorial debut of Peter Hall, the founder and director of England's prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. Hall doesn't appear to possess the heart for this kind of lurid melodrama. Banderas is becoming the Dennis Quaid of the '90s--each time out, those in the know predict that this, finally, will be the project that makes him a huge star; each time out, they're proven frustratingly wrong.
* MPAA-rating: R, for "violence, language, and some strong graphic sexuality." Times guidelines: Sex earned the rating; violence is tame though animal lovers need not apply.
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'Never Talk to Strangers'
Rebecca De Mornay: Sarah
Antonio Banderas: Tony
Dennis Miller: Cliff
Len Cariou: Henry
A TriStar Pictures presentation of an Alliance production, released by TriStar. Director Peter Hall. Producer Andras Hamori, Jeffrey R. Neuman, Martin J. Wiley. Screenplay by Lewis Green, Jordan Rush. Cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi. Editor Roberto Silvi. Costumes Terry Dresbach. Music Pino Donaggio. Production design Linda Del Rosario, Richard Paris. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.