With "Perfect Stranger ," Halle Berry enters that stage of her career where we seriously consider asking for her Oscar back.
A laughably overheated thriller from the once promising James Foley (remember the Sean Penn /Christopher Walken movie "At Close Range ," way back in 1986? ), "Stranger" shows Berry turning from the Dorothy Dandridge of her generation into just another Ashley Judd . Like Judd's "Twisted " or the Meg Ryan fiasco "In the Cut ," the new movie is the kind of "dark," "sexy" mystery where all the men are heavy-breathing psychos and all the twists preposterous.
Berry plays Rowena Price , a crusading journalist whose exposé of a page-turning senator gets shut down by her editor. Looking for a new target, she's alerted by a slatternly friend from her past (Nicki Aycox ) to the fact that powerful advertising executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis ) likes to take his online flirtations real and rough. The friend has proof, until the friend turns up dead.
With the help of her jittery Guy Friday, Miles (Giovanni Ribisi ) , Ro gets hired as a temp at Hill's agency, playacting a dewy-eyed innocent named Katherine Pogue . At the same time, she's working Hill into a cybersexual lather as an online vixen named Veronica . Which one of her personae will be targeted next, and can Ro even keep them straight?
Someday someone will make a great movie about the politics of sexual identity in the Internet age. It won't be a thriller, and it certainly won't be "Perfect Stranger," a film that has trouble creating one memorable character, let alone multiple ones, and whose idea of turning up the heat is to show people typing faster.
Ribisi juices up his role as the one character who's so crazy he can't be the guilty party, while Willis just ghosts through the film: an empty suit, a hairpiece, and nothing in between. (He had a lot more fun in his overstuffed sex thriller, 1994's "Color of Night .") Berry can't do a thing with the part of Rowena -- the character's just a series of tough/scared poses in screenwriter Todd Komarnicki's word-processing software, heading toward a revelation that nullifies everything leading up to it.
Someone like Judd might stomp through a role like this on sheer trashy conviction, but Berry doesn't have the capability or, much more crucially, the nerve. After "Gothika " and "Catwoman ," a viewer has to wonder: Why does this woman keep making thrillers if she can't bring herself to be thrilled?