Not to be confused with a certain 1980s sitcom about two night-and-day roommates, "Perfect Stranger" is a potboiler that only rises to a faint simmer. At times, director James Foley (2003's "Confidence
") seemingly wants to make a lurid erotic thriller along the lines of 1992's "Basic Instinct" or his very own 1996 suspenser "Fear," but he doesn't go far enough in the characters' relationship or the sexual content to fulfill such an effort. Instead, the film straddles the line between intrigue and blandness until it decides it's had enough and just sort of peters out. Were it not for the big-time Hollywood actors involved, this could be a Lifetime television movie.
Ambitious journalist Rowena (Halle Berry) no sooner breaks a story that will expose the incriminating after-hour activities between a senator and his young page that her work is snuffed out by corporate bigwigs who forbid her to run it. Feeling frustrated and cheated, she quits her job on a whim. The bad luck continues when Rowena learns that childhood best friend Grace (Nicki Aycox) has been found brutally murdered. Determined to bring the killer to justice, Rowena relies on computer whiz cohort Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) to acquire her a temp position at an ad agency run by Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). Because Grace was having an affair with Harrison, and because her last e-mail to him inferred that she was going to tell his wife, Rowena is sure that Harrison is the top suspect. As Rowena, under the alias name of Kathryn Pogue, gets closer to Harrison at the office, she also poses as a blonde named Veronica and embarks on a dangerous Internet correspondence with him. Before all is said and done, Grace's killer will be revealed; all Rowena has to worry about is not getting caught in her escalating web of lies.
"Perfect Stranger" keeps the viewer's attention with the promise of a gangbusters payoff, or at the very least a climactic battle of wits over brawn, but the picture fails to take off. The first-time screenplay by Todd Komarnicki is hobbled together with clichéd dialogue that apparently has come from a stocking-stuffer book of popular phrases and old sayings. The flirtatious online interplay between Rowena and Harrison is additionally contrived, with the characters speaking aloud what they type lest the audience is illiterate. Does anyone actually do this? When the two of them face each other in person and, not knowing she is the same woman that he writes to on his computer, Harrison quite suggestively invites her into an extramarital fling, interest sparks with suggestions of underlying sensuality, danger and menace. This is too quickly dropped, however, as the movie edges toward a series of red herrings and revelations that turn everything that has come before on its head.
As Rowena, Halle Berry (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand
") is gorgeous and captivating, bringing more substance to her character than initially meets the eye. What she saw in this project that she thought would be worth her efforts, however, is a question left unanswered. As lustful pal and partner-in-crime Miles, Giovanni Ribisi (2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
") is miscast; it's not that he isn't good, but that his natural quirkiness instantly paves the way for suspicion on the audience's part the second he shows up. In the one-note role of proudly lecherous businessman Harrison Hill, Bruce Willis (2006's "16 Blocks
") slums his way through his scenes, speaking in the same monotone voice throughout. Had more been done with his character and the deceptive romance(s) with Rowena, Willis might have had a chance to break free of an inert part that does him no favors.
Glaring conventions aside, "Perfect Stranger" starts and ends with a good ideathe final twist, if not airtight in conception, is certainly unexpectedbut the way in which the narrative is handled is clumsy and soporific. A montage near the end also becomes an unintentional laughing stock with editing that makes it seem like one person's unveiling of information to another about key plot points spans the length of a weekend rather than the few minutes it takes him to say it. Filmed on location in New York City, "Perfect Stranger" has slick production values and a strong lead performance from Halle Berry that makes you wish they were at the service of a better movie. Not suspenseful enough to be a thriller and not steamy enough to be titillating, the picture implodes by never deciding what it wants to achieve and what emotions it wishes to stir. All that is left are half-baked notions in search of a purpose.