WE ALREADY sorta knew Halle Berry was a cat, didn't we? That slinky walk. Those big, blinky-blinky eyes. That soft voice. Purrrr. Here, Halle-Halle!
"Catwoman" simply makes it official. Or tries to. In the movie version of the comic book story, Berry isn't Catwoman so much as a feline Janet Jackson in a series of glamour videos. Dressed in dominatrix leather, she performs vampy catwalks along high city ledges while the fake moon looms large in the night sky. The music rocks. That cat tail swings east and west. And special effects specialist-turned-director Pitof goes crazy with fragmentary editing and slanted camera angles. (The most important contribution a director can make, especially one with a single name, is to draw attention to himself.)
As for the story, which details how meek, gentle Patience Philips (Berry) came to be Catwoman, met a sexy detective (Benjamin Bratt) and defeated a skin cream empire, it goes down (and comes back up) like a hairball.
Patience is a graphic designer, a mere drone at Hedare Beauty, the snazzy cosmetics corporation that's about to unleash a radical anti-aging beauty cream. Under the slimy, fastidious thumb of George Hedare (Lambert Wilson), the company is about to ditch its spokesmodel, Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), also the boss's wife, for a newer, younger Face. There are bad feelings all around. And in the middle of all this, Patience stumbles into a secret backroom meeting and makes a startling discovery. This cream has a rather nasty side effect: You have to keep using it. If you don't, your face starts to resemble Joan of Arc -- after the fire.
Chased by Hedare security goons, she retreats into a big sludge tunnel. The bad guys close one side of the tunnel and flush her out over a big drop. No more Patience. That is, until a kitty from the Eygptian past (I am not making this up) leans down and breathes life back into her. There's nothing like sepulchral kitty breath to bring you back from the dead.
A new woman emerges, one who can scale buildings, execute somersaults and beat her opponents with extraordinary agility and nasty claws. Socially, there are some problems. She tends to hiss when she sees dogs. She can't keep her eyes off the goldfish. And she loves catnip. Like most superheroes, she's going to have to learn how to be social in real life. After all, that nice Tom Lone (Bratt) is very interested.
Of course, there's the matter of getting revenge on the Hedares who killed her. But when Laurel frames Catwoman for murder, the slinky scaler becomes a fugitive from the law. She has to persuade Tom, who's investigating the case, that she's innocent. Meanwhile Tom, a professional detective who is in love with Patience, doesn't have a clue that the woman behind that teeny face mask is the object of his affections. You have to wonder how many cases this guy has ever closed.
Berry is a physical treat for many sets of eyes. And, yes, it isn't every day that a movie about Manichaean good-and-evil turns on the right formula for skin cream. But these elements are not enough to make this superhero saga very engaging. It's possible that "Catwoman" could become an appealing video rental for young female audiences because of its over-the-top celebration of girl power. But other than that, there's purrecious little to talk about, except to lament a couple of supporting players.
Bratt, actually, does best of all with his throwaway role. He's almost believable, despite his inability to see through Catwoman's disguise. But as Patience's friend Sally, former "Mad TV" star Alex Borstein gives us one of the most annoying sidekicks of all time. She pops her head above the office cubicle partition so much, she suggests one of the creatures in those Whack-a-Mole concession games. Stone, who finds herself in an utterly thankless role, as a sort of peroxide Cruella De Vil, must surely miss the days of "Basic Instinct," when she was all the rage. Now, as Laurel, she's lamenting that George Hedare threw her away when she turned 40. It's an apt metaphor for an entertainment industry that chews up its beautiful women just when they start to become really interesting. But in a movie as silly and misfired as this one, timely statements only make the experience more painful.
CATWOMAN (PG-13, 104 minutes) -- Contains cartoon violence and some sensuality. Area theaters.