'Perfect Stranger': Not Thrilled To Meet You

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

Despite the presence of the luminous Halle Berry, "Perfect Stranger" is really just another thriller, utterly disposable, in town for a few desultory weeks until it heads off to a mild afterlife on DVD and then richly deserved oblivion. Half an hour into it, you think, Haven't I seen this? Half an hour after it, you think, What did I just see?

She plays a New York reporter -- pay no attention to the professionally decorated $4 million condo in the lavish Ansonia building on the Upper West Side, as most reporters have those -- who specializes in getting the goods, with the help of her stay-in-the-office researcher, the annoyingly hip Miles (Giovanni Ribisi). The movie begins with a gotcha ! where she exposes a Republican senator; he pushes conservative social values by day but hits on male interns by night.

I suppose the director, James Foley, thinks this puts her on the side of the angels, but it actually works against the thrust of the picture. What we see is an unpleasantly smug young woman who seems to take pleasure in the destruction she intends to wreak, while her little office-dweeb buddy positively drools over it. So right away, our sympathies are unsecured and the story's not working.

That's a problem throughout: No one ever achieves heroic or empathetic stature, so we're stuck without any emotional root in events, which in any case come to feel arbitrary and manipulative.

It's revealed quickly enough that the movie isn't really that interested in the hypocrisies of Republicans. Instead it quickly segues into another story line. Berry's Rowena quits her job in a snit when her target squirms off the bull's-eye. Piqued and unemployed (how will she afford the $23,000 mortgage payments?), she is approached by an old friend named Grace who dumps a load of woe on her. Grace began an illicit relationship with a prominent ad exec (first online, then in the flesh) who is now trying to dump her. She feels used, she's angry and she hopes that Rowena will help her in a revenge plot. She turns over a batch of documents and then conveniently is found dead in the river.

Suddenly Rowena is engaged -- no, not in avenging the death of her friend, whom she didn't like much to begin with, but in the thought of bringing down another fat cat, one who won't get away. The possibly guilty party is Harrison Hill, who owns his own agency and struts through it as though he's just bagged the IBM account. The role is impersonated by Bruce Willis in a mode that can't really be called "acting." Willis simply swaggers and smirks through the part, well aware that it requires no acting whatsoever, but merely a look of self-satisfied superiority on his face all the time. He manages that quite well, thanks.

So how do Rowena and Miles "investigate" the possibility that HH killed Grace? Well, let's put it this way: No one affiliated with "Perfect Stranger" bothered to read "All the President's Men," that classic exegesis of the investigative reporter's craft. Instead, the movie, in its headlong flight from authenticity, offers up reporters as secret agents and computer hackers.

Miles and Rowena create a fictitious identity for Rowena, get her a job under that identity working for Hill, and then attempt to seduce him into making a play for her (Rowena is exquisitely aware of her own beauty) so that they can gain access to his e-mail identity. Again, her own deceit is alienating. At no point in the cat-and-mouse game are we sure which is the cat and which the mouse, or that the world would be better with either cat or mouse surviving.

The deceptions deepen: Under Miles's guidance, she engages Hill online and attempts to come-hither Hill into an actual meet (even though, oh my, in her real-life fictitious life, she has begun to date Hill).

None of this is remotely believable. The movie, moreover, never commits to a single identity. Is it an Internet thriller? For a while, until it loses interest. Is it a journalism movie? Hardly, and it casually depicts journalism practices that are, to say the least, frowned upon. Is it an advertising movie? Well, some actual brands, like Heineken and Reebok, come along for the ride to gin up a sense of verisimilitude, but the film really offers no insight into the theory and practice of advertising.

The only thing that is remotely believable is Berry's punch-in-the-head beauty, which pretty much tames your irritation for at least 30 minutes, at which point you come to your senses and think, "What the hell am I doing here?" No good answer emerges.

As to the mystery of who killed Grace -- not that anyone in particular cares about poor, dead Grace -- it has been reported that the filmmakers shot three separate endings and chose the one that played the best. Yet it is generic. That is the modern style of moviemaking and nobody can help it. Still, it gives some idea how prefabricated the formula has become; there was nothing organic in the story that mandated one ending over another. It's all a question of interchangeable parts.

Perfect Stranger (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, nudity, disturbing violent images and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company