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‘Single White Female’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1992

Even though "Single White Female" is more second-rate, knife-stabbing psycho drivel, it's no pain to sit through. It looks great, for one thing. It has two fabulous faces -- Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It's also funny, sexy, suspenseful and, yes, utterly stupid.

Hey, all this project needed was a script.

Barbet Schroeder, who directed "Barfly" and "Reversal of Fortune," always makes a picture interesting. He could make a movie about the Yellow Pages look deeply significant. He pulls it off again in this rather tepid invocation of greater psychological dramas, from "Repulsion" to Ingmar Bergman's "Persona." In his hands, "SWF" is more than just a tacky, emotional button-pusher -- not much more, but enough to make things very watchable.

Self-employed uptown girl Fonda, whose perky nose seems to have been crafted by the Disney team, is about to get married. When she finds out fiance Steven Weber secretly slept with his ex-wife, she breaks the engagement and advertises for a roommate.

Along comes Leigh, shy and lost under a mane of hair. She's soothing, she fixes faucets, she even buys Fonda a puppy. She's a wonderful roommate, heh heh heh. When Fonda gives it another try with Weber, things change.

"Where the hell have you been?" demands Leigh after Fonda comes home after a night with Weber.

"Well, I guess I didn't think," says Fonda.

"No, you didn't," says Leigh, "and there's such a thing as a phone, you know."

The rest is psychological mounting horror, as Leigh's possessiveness increases. At least, that's the idea. There's a bunch of subconscious nonsense about Leigh's background (which has to do with twins) and Fonda's fears. But Leigh's extraordinary chameleon qualities come to bear. She's a phenomenal performer, vital in almost everything she does. In an otherwise one-note role, she maintains a delicate, vulnerable, even sexy menace. You never know what you're going to get with her.

When a tearful Fonda tells her about a sexual-harassment incident, Leigh calls the offender at home, threatens him and his family in unprintable language, then hangs up. She smiles sweetly at Fonda, curtsies, and says, "Ta-da!"

Luciano Tovoli's cinematography has a flat, blue menace to it; his low angles turn Fonda's fancy, old-fashioned building into a forbidding fortress. Inside the women's apartment, window-lattice shadows streak across their bodies, German-expressionism style. The atmosphere is further conveyed by Howard Shore's chilly score.

But this visual subtext can do nothing about Don Roos's uninspired story (an adaptation of the novel "SWF Seeks Same"), which makes only the most cursory stabs at character development.

It's hard to know what director Schroeder is after. Is he vacillating between well-drawn moments and crowd-prodding horror, with a little self-parodying on the side? How seriously do you take it when jealous Leigh tries seducing Weber with temptress villainy, or when a brain is impaled by the heel of a woman's shoe?

If Schroeder has any artistic pretensions, they're long gone by the finale, a prolonged, woman-to-woman, stabbing-utensil kinda thing. The movie's ultimately a schematic, formula-driven exercise, but it's punctuated regularly enough with good moments. The trouble is, those highlights stand out. They should equal the whole movie. You watch this thing coolly intrigued and sometimes amused, rather than terrified and taken in -- even when the stabbing raises its bloody, predictable hand.

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