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Ms. Oscar tumbles

Like Hillary Swank, Halle Berry is another former best actress winner choosing bad films

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Just when you thought “The Reaping” was the most convoluted and overwrought flashback-riddled thriller starring an Academy Award-winning actress in theaters, along comes “Perfect Stranger.” 

With her Oscar for “Monster’s Ball” fading fast in the rearview mirror, Halle Berry continues her string of earnest but mostly sub-par performances in mostly bad films, from “Die Another Day” to “Gothika” to “Catwoman.”  In “Perfect Stranger,” she sure knows how to wear a killer dress, spout the f-word and flash the cleavage, but her acting is all over the map in a performance that goes from perplexing to just plain embarrassing. 

Not that Katharine Hepburn in her prime could have rescued this script.  In yet another movie that knows less about investigative journalism than a teenage blogger who has never heard of “All the President’s Men,” Berry plays Rowena, a crusading scribe/sleuth who uses a male pseudonym because she’s under the impression that female journalists aren’t treated as seriously.  (Tell that to Diane Sawyer, sister.) 

Giovanni Ribisi, an intense little bundle of energy who can be great in the right role but sometimes comes across like a performer on “Saturday Night Live” doing an over-the-top impersonation of a Method actor, is Miles, Rowena’s computer whiz of a research assistant — a manic creep who is so obsessed with Rowena in such an unhealthy way that we fully expect to see a scene of him sniffing her underthings while she’s in the next room.  Ribisi’s performance is so twitchy you want to sit him down and pour a thermos of decaf down his throat. 

When Rowena’s childhood friend Grace turns up dead in a most gruesome fashion, Ro and Miles set out to prove the killer is none other than Grace’s former lover, Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), the famous chief of one of the leading and most glamorous advertising agencies in the world.  Hill’s wife (Paula Miranda) is exotic and gorgeous, and her family owns the agency, but he continually jeopardizes his marriage and his professional standing by hooking up with a series of gorgeous young things.  Sometimes they’re employees, sometimes they’re babes he’s met in online chat rooms.  Sometimes they’re both of those things. 

(Note: We can tell it’s a successful ad agency because there’s some laughably blatant product placement, e.g., bottles of Heineken lined up in a perfect row on a conference table, and an entire team of employees wearing Reebok warm-up suits to a pitch meeting because that’s how you’re going to land a big account.) 

I know advertising is a competitive game, and there can be fierce rivalries between major agencies — but Willis turns Hill into the Manhattan high-rise equivalent of Jack Nicholson in “The Departed.”  With his thinning hair slicked back, his frame draped in perfectly tailored suits, and his beautiful and protective Amazonian assistant always just a half-step behind him, Hill moves through the agency like a wolf on the prowl, leering at the hot women in the office, drumming up business, standing toe-to-toe with the head of a rival agency, talking to him like a mob boss.  When Hill learns the identity of an in-house spy (again, shades of “The Departed”), he gives the guy a vicious beating in front of the entire office, and then singles out a trembling underling, telling him, “Congratulations, you just got a promotion.” 

Donny Deutsch wishes he could be this stylish and tough. 

While Miles works from his spooky little rat’s nest apartment, hacking into computer systems and ferreting about for evidence to pin the crime on Hill, Ro takes the more direct approach.  Using yet another fake name — now she’s Veronica — she gets a job as a temp at Hill’s agency, the better to gain access to his hard drive.  And even though it’s a big company, it takes Hill about six seconds to notice Ro, what with her wearing tight skirts and looking like Halle Berry and everything. 

The chase is on.  Hill starts making his moves on Veronica, who is really Rowena.  Miles is supposed to be Rowena’s best friend and confidant, but he acts more like a stalker.  Hill’s jealous wife tails him.  Ro starts sleeping with her ex-boyfriend, who had been boinking Grace and just might be a suspect in her murder.  Both Hill and Ro seem to have drinking problems.  We learn Grace was having an affair with another man as well.  And what’s with all these flashbacks to Ro’s childhood, with her abusive father lurking in her bedroom and bathroom? 

“Perfect Stranger” is directed by James Foley, whose credits include “At Close Range,” one of the best crime movies of the past quarter-century.  Foley has a keen eye for the upscale lounges and restaurants of New York, where Hill entertains clients and makes his moves on Rowena.  The flashback scenes have an effectively eerie, cool-blue tone.  Throughout, this film has a classy look, but it’s just a coat of gloss that fails to cover the utterly junky story.  We get yanked around by one red herring after another, until we reach that moment deep into the film where one character has to give a long, long speech explaining everything — a speech that will almost certainly guarantee the speechmaker’s demise, given that the monologue is delivered to the real killer and there’s nobody else in the room. 

Hilary Swank and Halle Berry should get together soon and discuss how they can have three best actress Oscars between them, yet seem to be in a race to see who can make the greater number of crummy movies.  Surely there has to be better material for them than the likes of “The Reaping” and “Perfect Stranger.” 

I have a feeling both films will end up on a lot of lists of the worst movies of 2007.

Perfect Stranger ★

Starring: Halle Berry, Bruce Willis and Giovanni Ribisi

Director: James Foley

Rated: R for sexual content, nudity, some disturbing and violent images and language

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