Story Highlights• "Perfect Stranger" has no spark, says Tom Charity
• Film wastes Halle Berry and Bruce Willis in dumb plot
• Berry plays reporter who believes adman Willis is killer
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Back when Kirk Douglas and Spencer Tracy were on the job you could spot a newshound by his rolled-up sleeves, the way he wore his fedora and his two-fingered typing style (with a smoke and a flask nearby).
Fashions change. As tough investigative reporter Rowena Price in "Perfect Stranger," Halle Berry sports lip gloss and a "newsboy" flat cap. She looks like a million dollars, but doesn't exactly scream Seymour Hersh.
Even when she's working undercover as a temp, her wardrobe remains firmly in the upper tax bracket. In fact the only detail that truly says "journalist" here is Ro's pathetic dependence on tech support, in the fidgety form of devoted computer geek Miles (Giovanni Ribisi).
Ribisi seizes on this rather rote sidekick role and basically jumps up and down screaming "Look at me!" (metaphorically, obviously). Well, if you were a scrawny supporting actor playing all his scenes off Halle Berry, you might do the same.
Still, looks can be deceiving -- that's one less-than-original observation director James Foley plants early on as Rowena exposes a hypocritical "family values" senator with a handsome young skeleton in his closet.
The publisher kills that story, but our ace reporter has a more personal motive when it comes to incriminating Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis, exuding his customary wry detachment), the most powerful advertising man in New York. He's used and abused Ro's childhood friend Grace (Nicky Aycox), who is pulled out of the East River only days after threatening to blackmail her ex-lover.
The cause of death points right to Hill. But before she goes to the cops, Ro needs to get up close with the adman, online and in person, with a view to catching Harrison's constantly roving eye. And while she's taking care of business, the rest of us might ponder why we're treated to traumatic flashbacks to Rowena's childhood ... and what Miles is up to ... and, oh, what about Mrs. Hill?
There's no such thing as safe sex in an erotic thriller. You'll recall this genre climaxed in the early '90s with "Basic Instinct" and AIDS at the back of everyone's mind, but became more or less redundant as the connection between illicit affairs and sudden death came to seem more than a little hysterical.
"Perfect Stranger" resurrects most of the cynical old tropes -- adulterous yuppies, slippery plotting and kinky accessories -- then rewires them with the addition of chat rooms, text messages and spyware. See, the trouble with virtual blind dates is that you can't be sure who's getting off on you -- or why.
But for all its perfunctory stabs at the cutting edge, the movie's cyber-angst seems a decade out of date. And filmmakers still haven't figured out how to make instant messaging visually interesting. The best Foley can come up with is have Rowena's "chat-room virgin" (in 2007?) dutifully recount her semi-pornographic e-mails aloud in case anyone in the audience forgot their reading glasses.
When she's not stooping to aural sex Berry has one or two good moments staring down angry men who may mean her harm. You can just about understand why the Academy Award winner would sign up for such a hackneyed, lackluster scenario: sexy, smart, independent female leads don't exactly grow on trees (just ask Hilary Swank, currently slumming it in "The Reaping").
The truth is, though, this story might have worked better told from a different perspective.
As it stands, the film's a cheat. Word has it they shot three different endings with three different denouements. Such preparation was unnecessary. We all know what happens to cheaters.
This one's DOA.
Bruce Willis and Halle Berry try to create sparks in the deadly "Perfect Stranger."