A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, R, 109 mins.
Rowena: Halle Berry / Harrison Hill: Bruce Willis / Miles Haley: Giovanni Ribisi / Cameron: Gary Dourdan / Grace: Nicki Aycox
Directed by James Foley / Written by Todd Komarnicki and Jon Bokenkamp
PERFECT STRANGER should not in any way be confused with the mid-1980’s TV sitcom – PERFECT STRANGERS – staring Bronson Pinchot. However, I will go on record to say that there were moments in the film where I laughed out loud as if it were a sitcom, which may not be the intended reaction considering that this was advertised as an erotic thriller.
Let’s just say that as an “erotic thriller” PERFECT STRANGER is neither sexy nor erotic; as a murder-mystery/who-dunnit, the film is about as involving and suspenseful as ear wax; and as a worthy film for the likes of such A-list talent as Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, and Giovanni Ribisi, it is a shameful, forgettable waste. PERFECT STRANGER is a failure on all accounts. Hell, it’s not even good, tawdry, exploitative trash that would occupy low-rent cable television.
There is nothing more unappealing than an erotic thriller that lacks heat and - for that matter - copious amounts of nudity and seamy sexuality. Even worse is a film of this genre that attempts to shock and titillate at the same time. The abysmal aspect of PERFECT STRANGER is that it has no sizzle (despite it very hot main actress), coherence, nor does it have a workable script that does justice to the performers that are in it. Thrillers and mysteries should be enticing and provocative, leading the viewing into its proceedings with well-drawn characters and a narrative that has edge and allure. PERFECT STRANGERS is so hopelessly silly and inane that – when the final scene rolls by to the end credits – you kind of scratch your head and wonder where you've been for the last 90-plus minutes. Some of the best films are out-of-body experiences in the way they allow you to forget your surroundings and immerse yourself in the film altogether. PERFECT STRANGER is not an out-of-body-film; it’s a no-brain-in-the-body film. I felt cheated and stupid after watching it.
The movie does not even attain the dubious credit of a guilty pleasure. Perhaps even more noteworthy is that the film churns out yet another lackluster, sub-par, and all-over-the-map performance by Halle Berry, who appears in PERFECT STRANGER as if she were attempting to secure the honor of most appallingly awful follow-up films to an Oscar winning performance. There is no doubt that Berry is one of the most glamorous and beautiful specimens in the movies, but in PERFECT STRANGER she lets her wonder-bra, ample cleavage, and deranged and incoherent performance do all the talking.
Add this film alongside such career lows as CATWOMAN, GOTHIKA, and SWORDFISH and its deceptively easy to see that Berry has gone terribly astray from her Academy Award winning turn in MONSTER BALL. Hyperbole aside, Berry’s acting here is cataclysmically embarrassing. She seems to have no clue as to whom she is playing. There is no flow, cadence, or any semblance of consistency here. Add to the mix Bruce Willis (who phones in a one-note performance that gives his work in COLOR OF NIGHT a whole new respectability), and Ribisi (who is reduced down to a sniveling, drooling stooge) and you have a instantly forgettable and wholeheartedly disposable effort.
Berry (looking as characteristically fetching as ever) plays Rowena, one of those crusading, winner-take-all investigative journalists that seems to occupy a story from fifty years ago. Believing that all female journalists are not treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve, she writes all of her columns under a male pseudonym. Huh? Call me crazy, but I can name on both hands and all ten fingers some fairly respected female print writers, but in Rowena’s mind, she’s of an ill-treated breed and decides to bury her gender in her stories.
Near the beginning of the film one of Rowena’s childhood friends, Grace (Nicki Aycox) has died a very violent and tragic death. Appealing to her sensibilities as a cunning sleuth, Rowena decides to investigate the shady circumstances. Along for the ride is her trusted sidekick and very, very loyal friend named Miles (Ribisi), a computer whiz that works at her newspaper who is an unqualified genius with a computer, which makes him invaluable at helping Rowena at a moment’s notice. Ribisi is a very fine actor – one of the better to emerge from his generation – and he plays Miles with that right element of sly, daft, and caffeine-induced energy. Yet, he telegraphs the motives of his character way, way to much. During some moments of the film he showcases such elements of stalkerish behaviour towards Rowena that it would be easy to see that this guy is not who he really says he is. Okay, maybe he’s really just a trusted and true confidant to Rowena, but maybe he really likes the way she looks in a low-cut dress.
Needless to say, the dynamic duo of Rowena and Miles set their sights one man, Harrison Hill (the absurdly bad Willis), who is the chief of one of the most successful advertising agencies around. Hill has everything: money, power, a super-model gorgeous wife, and corporate respectability. But, Rowena thinks that this man is a sex addict, adulterer, and pervert. How does she come to think this? Well, she uncovers some rather incriminating evidence in the form of chat room transcripts from Grace and a user named ADEX. Is ADEX Harrison? Rowena seems utterly convinced, and she subsequently plans to reveal him to the world by going in undercover into his agency and will then use her innate sexuality as a weapon. She will place herself within Harrison’s organization and get “close” with him as she works as a temp and then she will log on, with Miles’ assistance, to the same chat room ADEX uses and in hopes to lure ADEX into admitting that he is – in fact – Harrison.
Got all that?
One thing that is deliciously implausible is how Hill is able to maintain his actual job. At times, he is seen as the poster boy for upper management and is suave, debonair, and well spoken at engagements. At other times, he is such a caldron of anger and hard-edged violence that he is not below grabbing a fellow worker out of his desk and kicking the crap out of him for not doing his job faithfully. Then, to make the character even more improbably absurd, he is shown flirting with everything that has high heels, a short skirt, and a plunging neckline. Whether this man is ADEX and a cold-hearted murderer is something the film asks us to ponder, but how Harrison is not brought up on assault and sexually harassment charges is beyond me. The character is not helped by Willis performance, who plays the role so broadly that you never seem to think that he is sure whether he is an amoral corporate CEO or a goodfella from a Scorsese crime epic.
Now, to amp up the film’s limitless amount of silliness and unintentional camp appeal, Harrison instantly becomes smitten with Rowena, renaming herself Veronica so she can be "undercover". The film quickly piles on one ridiculous and contrived plot element after another. While she is seducing Hill, Rowena hooks up with and bangs her ex-boyfriend (Gary Dourdan), who is revealed to have had an affair with Grace in the past, thus complicating matters. Even more complicated is the fact that Hill actually catches Rowena trying to sabotage his office PC, after which time he forgives her by firing her and taking her out for a night on the town. She may have tried to steal all of his PC secrets and destroy his career, but - hot dang - Harrison thinks she so sexy that a night on the town would be punishment enough.
Meanwhile, we discover that Grace may have been sleeping with other men and – to add extra flavor to an ultimately flavorless thriller – Miles seems to get agitated and jealous the more time Rowena spends with Hill in an effort to get information from him. Miles becomes such an obvious figure of hate and envy that it looks like he could drop down on his hands and knees at any given time and proceed to suck on Rowena’s toes. He’s that creepy of a presence. And then there are some odd and awkwardly revealed flashbacks to Rowena’s childhood with her and her abusive father.
PERFECT STRANGER is a dumb film made by an intelligent filmmaker, James Foley, who made great films like crime classic AT CLOSE RANGE and one of the best assemble-actor films of the last 15 years in GLENGARRY GLENROSS. PERFECT STRANGER is a perfect example of how atrocious and untamed performances coupled with a convoluted and messy script can trump a director’s talent. Berry seems oblivious to the type of film and character that she is supposed to play, Willis hams it up and overacts like he was just plucked off the set of HUDSON HAWK, and Ribisi is simply too good of an actor to play such a mishandled character that he has to sludge through here.
PERFECT STRANGER also commits the unforgettable by adding on one would-be shocking plot twist after another within the film’s closing moments. They are such unmitigated howlers that it needs a long and laborious sequence where one key character has to engage in dry and routine expositional dialogue to make us believe that the actual killer is had the most probable motives. Very rarely has a thriller had a persona with such improbable motives as revealed in PERFECT STRANGER. The final, final twist is such a jaw-dropping groaner that rings so utterly false that the dramatic weight of the rest of the film has imploded within itself.
PERFECT STRANGER is the type of intellectually vacant dribble that makes one yearn for the tense and taut thrillers of yesteryear, which concerned themselves with the subtle nuances of storytelling and characters. With flaccid and sloppy direction, unhinged and manic performances by most of the film’s lead actors, and a story that throws endless amounts of red herrings at the viewers to the point of nausea, PERFECT STRANGER does not ever achieve the passable level of cheap and dirty B-grade, direct to video sex thriller. It does deserve to go on a long recent list of erotic thrillers that have no eroticism, no thrills, no believable character motives, and no plot twists that are legitimate surprises. If anything, PERFECT STRANGER is the epitome of labored, tired, and instantly forgettable filmmaking where the film’s half-baked premise and horrendously unbelievable story developments ultimately does it in. The movie is like a shoddy commission salesman that engages in bait n’ switch. It advertises and offers up one thing, but switches gears and gives us something we never expected, nor wanted.