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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Last week, when I reviewed The Reaping, I commented on the often strange career choices of star Hilary Swank after winning her Oscars. Now here I am, about to do the same for Halle Berry. The actress, of whom I’ve long been a fan, started off in often-thankless sexpot roles (The Flintstones, Race the Sun, Strictly Business). Once established, she seemed to take her career very seriously, choosing increasingly interesting projects that announced her as a genuine talent. Berry won an Emmy for her work in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and, famously, earned a Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball. And then she went back to making the same types of movies she had seemingly left behind. I mean, Catwoman? Gothika? These are not pictures that have the same level of ambition or quality.

Berry’s latest, Perfect Stranger is yet another step back. Really, there is very little difference between this worthless piece of fluff and her 1996 cornball drama The Rich Man’s Wife. This is the kind of film you star in when you’re a struggling up-and-comer, looking to make a name for yourself; it is not the kind of film you want to be in if you have an established career and would like to keep it that way.

Berry plays Rowena Price, who has to be the least ethical investigative reporter on the planet. The opening scene finds her posing as a conservative Christian lobbyist to nail a closeted gay politician who has supported anti-gay legislation. Since she has photographic evidence of his same-sex trysts, one has to wonder why she doesn’t merely confront the politician as a reporter. But, hey, that’s an early indication of how the film is going to go.

The paper unfairly quashes her story, and shortly thereafter, Rowena bumps into a childhood friend on the street. The pal mentions that she’s been carrying on an affair with Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), the owner of a well-respected advertising agency. When the girl turns up brutally murdered, Hill is Rowena’s prime suspect. Her solution is to get a temp job in Hill’s office (which, amazingly, happens right off the bat) and seduce the ornery boss via a series of sexy online chats. Helping her is close personal friend/computer expert Miles (Giovanni Ribisi, overacting like his life depended on it). Hill is clearly the volatile type. When he discovers that an employee has been trading secrets with a rival firm, Hill beats the man to a bloody pulp in front of the rest of his staff. Apparently, he has no concerns about being arrested for assault and battery. Despite his air of menace, Rowena quickly gets Hill’s attention with her low-cut dresses and flirtatious ways. And then…well, what exactly?

Perfect Stranger makes a fatal mistake that too many modern-day thrillers make: it so desperately wants to fool you with its plot twists that it ends up playing unfairly. The story here switches directions so suddenly -and so arbitrarily – that the central mystery simply does not add up. Important information is withheld from the audience and unlikely coincidences emerge out of nowhere. By the time everything is explained in a typically talky denouement, all you can see are gaping holes in logic. Trying to make sense of this movie is like taking five different jigsaw puzzles and forcing the pieces to fit together in the hope that you will end up with a coherent picture. It just doesn’t work.

Here’s just one example of what I mean. Halfway through the movie, Rowena states that she’s going to visit her mother. This comes as a surprise to us because her mother has not been previously mentioned. She goes to the old age home, stares at an elderly woman, and then the film cuts to the next scene. The mother is never seen again after those fifteen seconds. If the moment seems like a non-sequiter, it is. However, there’s a plot point at the end that needs to be tied up, and we eventually learn that Rowena was doing more than visiting her mother. There was a reason she was there. However, because we saw no prior justification for the existence of the mother character, the whole explanation rings false. It seems like a flimsy way to explain away something that ought to be important. You can find at least a dozen other identical examples of this type of thing.

The big reveal is leakier than a holey boat, essentially rendering moot everything we have seen before. Remember the liar character that Jon Lovitz used to play on “Saturday Night Live?” His voice would stutter and stammer while he tried to spontaneously come up with bigger and bigger whoppers. The finale of Perfect Stranger essentially does the same thing. Adding insult to injury, the film ends with one of the most confounding final shots in movie history. Just before the screen fades to black, we see a close-up of an unidentified man who has not factored into the film until these last two seconds. Who is that guy and why has he suddenly popped up? I eventually came up with a theory, but the fact remains that it’s just one more inane moment in a movie that’s overflowing with them.

(I have a firm rule about avoiding spoilers in my reviews, but I can’t fully articulate my criticism without revealing the most significant plot points. Be warned: if you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.)

I found this movie to be incredibly maddening because it just wasn’t honest. Thrillers like this don’t necessarily need to be realistic, but they do need to establish and follow their own sense of internal logic. Perfect Stranger quite literally just makes things up as it goes along. For example, a whole lot of time is spent showing that Miles has a hardcore sexual obsession with Rowena. It is even revealed that he’s the one doing most of the online chatting with her (pretending to be Hill). What point does this serve, other than to momentarily make Miles a red herring? His obsession has no basis and no payoff. It feels like it’s there simply to make the story more salacious.

An even worse example comes with the revelation that Rowena is actually the murderer. Here is a very simple question that the movie fails to answer: If Rowena killed her friend, then what exactly is she investigating? She spends a lot of time tapping into Hill’s computers, breaking into his office, chatting online, and conferring with Miles. I understand that she’s trying to set Hill up, but we see her doing a lot of things she doesn’t technically need to be doing. Things she wouldn’t be doing if the movie didn’t need to distract us from the truth. Even when she’s alone in her apartment, she carries on the pretense of “investigating” Hill. For whose benefit? Making Rowena the killer is nothing more than a cheap shot, a pathetic attempt to pull the rug out from under the audience.

I resented the sheer dishonesty of Perfect Stranger. There have been rumors of multiple script rewrites and multiple alternate endings. It’s clear that even those involved in the film’s production didn’t know how to makes sense of it. If they were so confounded by the material, what are we poor moviegoers to make of it?

(1/2 out of four)

Perfect Stranger is rated R for sexual content, nudity, some disturbing violent images and language. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Perfect Stranger

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