"The Rich Man's Wife" is nasty, brutish and, best of all, short. But that's not bad, that's good. Here's a wallow, a pulp fiction that is as enjoyable as it is preposterous. What do you expect from the director of "Slumber Party Massacre"?
Written and directed by that same Amy Holden Jones, who has a very nasty imagination, the film follows the adventures of Josie Portenza (Halle Berry), a seemingly overmatched young beauty who finds herself in the middle of a Hitchcock film being played out for real.
The dissatisfied wife of an abusing, cheating, drunken but very wealthy television executive (played by Christopher McDonald), she unhappily discovers herself abandoned on her vacation to the mountains when he has to return for a "meeting." Going to the local bar for a drink, she has a momentary lapse of judgment and unburdens herself to a spooky redneck with chilly blue eyes.
Peter Greene, scary as hell as the nasty sodomite in "Pulp Fiction," is perhaps too frightening for this role. He reeks of violent predation from the start; it might have been more believable if he'd been one of those sleazy charmers like Ted Bundy whose malevolence only emerged after the flirtation wore thin. You're thinking: why would she sit down with this guy? Who would sit down with this guy? I wouldn't even sit down with this guy!
The story plays out like Hitchcock's far superior "Strangers on a Train." In a moment of weakness, Josie tells Greene's character Cole that she hates her husband. To impress her, he kills the husband -- the brutality of this crime is stunning, and shows that women can be as unflinching as old Sam Peckinpah in depicting violence. Then he introduces her to the rest of her life: He'll be her new man and if she won't cooperate, he'll tell the cops she hired him to kill hubby.
But Jones isn't done there; what's nifty about "The Rich Man's Wife," besides some neat murders and a junky score by John Frizzell, is the swift and tricky plotting, an all-but-lost movie art. Jones keeps pulling the carpet out from under us, which, after all, is the point of the exercise.
Particularly good are scuzzy Clive Owen as Josie's forlorn secret lover and Clea Lewis as his even more pathetic wife; they don't turn out to be whom they seem. And, in fact, nothing does. Like "The Usual Suspects," "The Rich Man's Wife" completely deconstructs itself at the end. You haven't been watching a movie, you've been listening to an alibi. A nice bit of nasty business.
"The Rich Man's Wife'
Starring Halle Berry and Peter Greene
Directed by Amy Holden Jones
Released by Hollywood Pictures
Rated : R (extreme violence)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 9/13/96