What becomes an Oscar-winning actress most? A skintight black cat suit, risque leather bodice straps and a pointy-eared cowl, apparently.
Halle Berry makes her bid for box-office superstardom in "Catwoman," a spinoff of the "Batman" franchise that is pretty slim pickings compared with some recent comic book adaptations (not just the "Spider-Man" movies but "X-Men" and even "Hellboy" come to mind). Actually, "slim" may not be the appropriate word for a film that misses no chance to ogle Berry's bodacious physique. After her dramatic, toned-down turn in "Monster's Ball," it's as if she wants to remind audiences (and the powers that be in Hollywood) that she's really just a pretty face.
That she certainly is, and for those fans who enjoy reveling in Berry's ravishing physical features, "Catwoman" gives them a deliciously uninterrupted chance to do so. But the guys to whom "Catwoman" might also have appealed might want to take a pass. As one young man in the movie's demographic range said of watching Berry strut her stuff, "You can see that in a magazine."
Viewers who were reared on the "Batman" television series -- and thus for whom Catwoman will always be indelibly embodied by Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar -- will find the once-villainous vixen much changed. In "Catwoman," Patience Philips (Berry) is a meek graphic designer who is killed by her boss at a cosmetics company when she discovers that the company's new beauty cream is toxic. Brought back to life by a mysterious cat (in a scene that's just begging for someone to start belting out "Memory"), Patience becomes Catwoman, a leather-sheathed, red-lipsticked supermodel-superhero who vows to avenge Patience's death and help fight crime wherever she sees it.
In other words, Catwoman is now a good guy. But she's a very bad girl. Strutting around an unnamed city of the future in stiletto boots and brandishing a very big whip, she has taken the playful S&M sensibility of Kitt and Newmar's incarnations to its joyless extreme.
"Catwoman" was directed by someone named Pitof, who reportedly got his start as an editor and visual effects specialist. That provenance is clearly evidenced in a movie that is designed and edited to resemble one big music video, a jangly jumble of quick cuts and TV-friendly close-ups that discards such anachronisms as story and character like so much kitty litter. The great thing about the "Batman" movies (well, the good ones) is that they embraced the television show's camp sensibility while exploring its darker psychological regions; here, nothing is embraced or explored. The fun has been whipped right out of it.
Still, when given the chance, Berry does a good job as the transformed Patience, whose sudden attraction to catnip and tuna straight out of the can bewilders her as much as her newfound antipathy toward dogs. And she has been given a handsome, believable love interest in Benjamin Bratt, who plays a dreamy police detective (their impromptu game of one-on-one makes for a sexy, if hyper-edited, courtship ritual).
But despite such appealing elements, "Catwoman" is dragged down by a paper-thin story, the predictable number of fight scenes executed at equally predictable intervals and stock, unmemorable characters. The latter include the villain with an indeterminate European accent, a chubby best friend and the gay co-worker who punctuates his sentences with a sarcastic "Hello?"
But the worst by far is Sharon Stone's Laurel Hedare, the former model and cosmetics queen who becomes Patience's arch-nemesis. After delivering a speech about the fashion industry's disregard for women over 40 (a broadside one could easily imagine Stone delivering to a meeting of Hollywood studio chiefs), Laurel proceeds to engage in the most embarrassing screen catfight since Krystal and Alexis went at it in "Dynasty." Here, Berry winds up hurling Stone through huge blown-up photographic prints of her own younger image, leaving the older actress in a heap, her face horrifically scarred. It's an ugly climax, with a subtext that seems to engage in the very ills Stone was lamenting moments earlier. "Catwoman" concludes, not with a triumphant feminist roar, but with a dispiriting hiss.
Catwoman (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for action violence and some sensuality.