Review: “Perfect Stranger”

Predictably trashy and silly, “Perfect Stranger” funnily enough lives up to what it is being advertised as – a straight up, B-Movie thriller serving as little more than a Halle Berry star vehicle. Throw in the requisite multitude of misdirections and sexy outfits and bingo, prepackaged entertainment perfect for the seventh hour into a long-haul airline flight, or just a lazy wet Sunday afternoon.

Indeed in many ways what’s surprising here is that it’s watchable pap, certainly not the disaster it could’ve easily become (ala “Catwoman”) because it’s not that stupid or ambitious. Scribe Todd Komarnicki sets us up with Halle Berry as the high-class and serious equivalent of “Fletch” essentially, and then proceeds to try and confuse by dousing the action in misdirection and ultimately pointless subplots and suspects (mostly glamorous women or lecherous men).

The story has Berry as investigative reporter Rowena Price who learns that her friend’s murder might be connected to powerful ad executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). With the help of her computer geek associate Miles (Giovanni Ribisi), Rowena goes undercover as a temp at Hill’s agency and flirts with him online. Hill married into money and cheats regularly behind his wife’s back with pretty employees (the wife is model-quality but has a beauty spot, good enough an excuse I guess), thus Hill is an easy target. Yet as things start to unravel, true identities show that people aren’t entirely who they claim to be.

There’s the odd half-decent twist in there, fresh for anyone who has never read an Agatha Christie novel or seen many of these kinds of toned-down “Basic Instinct” style thrillers before. Yet it’s lost amidst the cliches – from the abusive back story to the quite literal ‘shrine’ of one character’s obsession. It also piles them on so much that some of these twists (especially the finale) actually end up slightly cancelling out what happened before – both emotionally and narratively. Much of the core audience for this kind of film, those who shine to predictable entertainment, will leave feeling somewhat cheated.

Also, for a ‘sexy thriller’ there’s very little of it going on. Long portions of the film are based around ‘steamy’ online chat sessions – yet the raunchiest it gets is one comment about typing with one hand (see “Closer” for a more accurate depiction of this diverting hobby). Berry does dress in figure hugging dresses, but keeps it on in the film’s sole sex scene. The closest thing to nudity, aside from a jaundiced corpse, is a brief shot of Giovanni Ribisi going shirtless to show off his new chest and arm muscles (boy’s been working out).

Where it does work is in some of the casting. Berry ain’t the greatest actress, but she’s perfectly serviceable for this kind of Demi Moore-esque stuff and doesn’t downplay how manipulative her sex appeal is. Willis puts in an enjoyably creepy turn as the boss with a temper – making him into a nice sleaze. Ribisi nicely plays the Jimmy Olson style geek with the disturbing obsessive side, and supporting roles from the victim to the office gossip are typical for this type.

Director James Foley has the Bruckheimer aesthetic downpat, making ordinary offices and long bouts of typing into a kind of glossy, sexy activity. It defies logic of course, not even the world’s best reporter can afford to live in an apartment like Berry owns in this, but it looks nice and translates well on-screen. Same with the dialogue which thankfully avoids one-liners but yields some corny clunkers of its own – one character’s description of Willis’ icy lesbian P.A. is the delicious “She’s his watchdog, not his bitch”.

Ultimately though ‘Stranger’ tries too hard to cover up that there’s not much to it, losing its point about balancing different identities through the increasingly ludicrous twists and intense overacting. By the time the big reveal comes around you really don’t care, but it does at least keep you involved – even if only for its unintentional comedic moments – for much of its runtime. Go in expecting a smart thriller you’ll be majorly disappointed. Go in expecting a clunker, you’ll be surprised by how half-decent camp fun it actually is.