"Sleeping With the Enemy" is merely "Fatal Attraction" with a splash of Brut -- a relentlessly formulaic look at the downside of sexual obsession, directed by Joseph Ruben. Acclaimed for cult favorites such as "The Stepfather," Ruben makes a calculated bid for commercial acceptance with this psychosexual hair-raiser, a tale of a battered wife that flirts with, but never truly attains a female perspective.
Julia Roberts is lush but never allowed to be lustrous as Laura, a tentative beauty who is fiendishly abused by her financier husband. After submitting to his brutality for three years, Laura escapes from Martin (Patrick Bergin), changes her identity and hides in a small college town in Iowa where she takes up with Ben (Kevin Anderson), a drama professor. Meanwhile Martin discovers the deception and, like Glenn Close in a mustache, harries the damsel till she learns to stand on her own two feet or 90 minutes are up, whichever comes first.
Written by Ronald Bass, who won an Oscar for "Rain Man," this prosaic screenplay is Bass's notion, and probably Ruben's, that women nowadays want men to be fuzzy toy bears. Given her druthers, Laura naturally takes the cuddly collegiate over the one-dimensional land shark. But only these guys would imagine that Ben, who is positively ulcerating with thoughtfulness, could be attractive to women. It provides plenty of reason to call the Alan Alda Emergency Hot Line, with gooey Ben inclined to say things like "I don't know how to feel how I'm feeling" and then burn the pot roast.
That's not to say bring on the Neanderthals, just some real men. "Sleeping With the Enemy" gives us stereotypes that emerged in the '70s just as Ruben is reworking familiar sod. "The Stepfather," a nightmare of controlling masculinity, only a more visceral one, also featured a ruthless antagonist who used violence to maintain his illusion of family harmony. It was "Shoot the Moon"-style horror, grimy and gutsy. A slap knocked you backward, while here it leaves a tasteful bruise or superficial wound.
Ultimately "Sleeping With the Enemy" wants to be about one woman's rebirth, but Roberts neither grows nor glows in this empty movie. Like the wife of "Fatal Attraction" and Martin here, she learns to solve her domestic problems with violence. She's Pretty Woman with a gun.
Sleeping With the Enemy, at area theaters, is rated R for wife abuse, terror and a sex scene.