More smelly red herrings than a wholesale fish market!
That in itself would provide enough of a warning to steer clear of “Perfect Stranger.” But wait — there’s more!
Try plot holes the size of a wholesale fish market. Unappealing characters with murky motivations. And a director forced to distract the audience by any means necessary. Including multiple “gotcha!” moments that reveal the awful truth: When you can’t build suspense, you’ve got to go for surprise.
Not that director James Foley doesn’t know what to do with a good script. (See his 1992 adaptation of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for example, or 1990’s neo-noir thriller “After Dark, My Sweet.”)
But when he’s got a bad one — like the “Perfect Stranger” screenplay Todd Komarnicki spins from Jon Bokenkamp’s story — Foley has no choice but to bring on the flash and trash and hope nobody’s watching too closely. So much for that plan.
“Perfect Stranger” opens with a prelude that establishes not only our protagonist, investigative reporter Rowena Price (Halle Berry), but her favorite MO — pretending to be somebody else so she can get the goods on the no-good liar. (Irony rears its ugly head yet again.)
But when her spaghetti-spine newspaper editors kill her Pulitzer-worthy expose about a U.S. senator who likes to get up close and personal with his male interns — sound familiar? — Rowena quits and vows to show them a thing or three.
Ah, but how to choose a target for her next scoop? Rowena finds the answer when her childhood best friend Grace (Nicki Aycox) turns up dead — under extremely suspicious circumstances — after an affair with high-powered advertising executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis).
Seems that Hill, despite his marriage to a rich and well-connected photographer (Paula Miranda), likes to play around, especially with Internet chat-room charmers and easy-on-the-eyes office underlings.
That provides a perfect opportunity for our gal Ro to indulge her flair for role-playing — first as an office temp who catches Hill’s eye, then as an Internet seductress.
To succeed at both, Ro needs help from her faithful technogeek companion Miles (Giovanni Ribisi), who’d do anything for her. And, maybe, anything to her — assuming she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings.
And so it goes, as “Perfect Stranger” goes through the motions, attempting to weave its narrative threads into something resembling a chain of suspense.
Alas, it turns out to be more like a tangle of knots that, once untied, tell us nothing — except that we’re trapped in a movie that doesn’t really know where it’s going. Other than downhill, that is.
Foley tries mightily to inject some visual interest, but “Perfect Stranger’s” heavy reliance on computers and the Internet — ooh, hot and frantic typing! — work against him. Not that it’s impossible to create suspense when a computer’s involved; check out “Breach” for a textbook example.
Then again, “Breach” had people we actually cared about, especially the fascinating bad guy at its center. But “Perfect Stranger’s” title perfectly suits the flat (what else could they be? they’re cardboard) characters who pop in and out of the story whenever the script needs them to make yet another preposterous plot point.
As an Academy Award-winning actress, you’d think Berry would have a field day playing Rowena and her various aliases, but costume designer Renée Kalfus does a better job of differentiating the character’s multiple personalities than Berry does. (At least she looks like a knockout, even if she can’t act like one.)
Willis works hard — occasionally too hard — to bring a smidgin of charm to his sleazy ad man, while Ribisi vacillates between geekiness and freakiness, emerging as yet another victim of the movie’s fuzzy focus.
Rumor has it that Foley shot three endings for “Perfect Stranger,” each with a different character as the killer.
It shows. Even worse, changing the ending wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to the movie — because, no matter whodunit, I still wouldn’t care.CAROL CLINGMORE COLUMNS
movie: “Perfect Stranger”
running time: 109 minutes
rating: R; sexual situations, nudity, violence, disturbing images, profanity
now playing: Cannery, Cinedome, Green Valley Ranch, Neonopolis, Orleans, Palms, Rainbow, Red Rock, Sam’s Town, Santa Fe, Showcase, South Point, Suncoast, Sunset, Texas
“Perfect Stranger” doesn’t exactly rank as a high point in James Foley’s directorial career. A few of his more successful credits:
“At Close Range” (1986) — A small-town teen (Sean Penn) goes into the family business — crime — under the tutelage of his estranged father (Christopher Walken).
“After Dark, My Sweet” (1990) — An ex-boxer (Jason Patrick) drifts into a relationship with a troubled widow (Rachel Ward) — and a dubious kidnap scheme hatched by her uncle (Bruce Dern).
“Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) — Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin headline David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about desperate real estate salesmen.
“Two Bits” (1995) — A 12-year-old boy (Jerry Barrone) and his ailing grandfather (Al Pacino) are brought together by a lucky quarter in Depression-era Philadelphia.
“Confidence” (2003) — A consummate con artist (Edward Burns) double-crosses a slimy crime boss (Dustin Hoffman), forcing him to pull off the scam of his life — or death.
— By CAROL CLING