Imperfect 'Stranger' is done in by its twists

The Baltimore Sun

No one is who they seem in Perfect Stranger, but the promise of the unexpected comes across as a boast, not a challenge. Instead of heightening the intrigue in this psychological thriller, the labored twists and out-of-leftfield turns will leave audiences more weary than wary.

Halle Berry, in her most challenging role since Monster's Ball, for which she won an Oscar, is Rowena Price, who opens the film as one seriously ticked-off investigative journalist. Her newspaper has been pressured into sitting on her big story, an expose of an immoral U.S. senator (are there no noble politicians in the movies anymore?), and she's about had it.

Then she runs into a friend, a shady character named Grace (Nicki Aycox), who has been having an online and in-the-flesh affair with a high-profile advertising magnate named Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). Grace wants Rowena to help her expose and humiliate Hill, who apparently has done Grace wrong.

Rowena has her doubts, but when Grace turns up dead, she becomes convinced that Hill is the murderer. And so, with the help of her infatuated sidekick Miles (Giovanni Ribisi), who can hack into any computer anywhere, Rowena sets out to entrap Hill, expose his guilt and re-establish her reputation as a journalistic wunderkind.

(Problem No. 1: If computers are as easy to hack into as this film suggests, we're all in trouble.)

Of course, Rowena and Miles don't do anything the old-fashioned way - like working sources. Not when Rowena can seriously sex herself up (this is Halle Berry, after all), get a job with a temp agency (more computer manipulation, I guess) and get herself assigned to Hill's office. Once there, she flutters her eyelashes, and Hill begins pursuing her in the finest tradition of sex-obsessed bosses everywhere.

Meanwhile, Rowena also has established an online identity, that of a sexy e-mailer named Veronica who lures Hill into making all sorts of embarrassing, if not incriminating, statements.

(Problem No. 2: If Hill spends this much time indulging his libido - he's also got a foxy, albeit controlling, wife - how does he have time to run a business?)

So the race is on, as Hill tries to bed both Rowena and Veronica, Rowena tries to prove Hill is a murderer, and Miles gets increasingly frustrated that his super-geek computer mastery doesn't turn Rowena on.

Berry slogs through the proceedings with more intensity than they deserve, working overtime to make both Rowena and the plot intriguing. Getting to play what is, essentially, a handful of different characters, she manages to keep them straight and the audience on its toes, if only to figure out who she is now and where she's headed.

Ribisi has some oddball moments, and he embues his character with enough creepiness to prevent him from simply fading into the background. But he's also saddled with the dreaded speech near the end of the film where the entire plot is explained. Poor guy.

Willis does little more than scowl and occasionally look betrayed, but then, that's all Todd Komarnicki's script really asks of him. Other than Berry, the dominant character is a computer screen, on which seemingly three-fourths of the action plays out.

(Problem No. 3: Computer screens are not that compelling.)

Director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) brings little sense of style to the proceedings, concentrating instead on largely fruitless attempts to amp up the suspense. In the hands of a more extravagant director, one with a sense of visual excess, the recklessness of Perfect Stranger's storyline would have at least given us something fun to watch.

The movie is only partially redeemed by a final plot twist most audiences probably won't see coming. But by then, they may be too weary of all the jerking back and forth to much notice.

>>>Perfect Stranger (Columbia Pictures) Starring Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi. Directed by James Foley. Rated R. Time 109 minutes.

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