Perfect Stranger

The commercial success of “Gothika,” Halle Berry's previous star vehicle, must have encouraged her and Revolution Studio to make “Perfect Stranger,” a techno noir thriller about deceit, duplicity, conspiracy, and how a person's traumatic past continues to exert fatal influence on the present.

The director is James Foley, one of the most avid practitioners of film noir in American cinema over the past twenty years, and so “Perfect Stranger” displays the same themes evident in his former films, the good (“After Dark, My Sweet,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”), the mediocre (“At Close Range,” “Fear”), and the bad ones (“The Chamber,” The Corrupter”)

While technically Foley has improved, making increasingly more stylish and visually seductive films, narratively, he still stumbles when it comes to narrative logic, dramatic continuity, plausibility, problems that have plagued all of his work. Unfortunately, what begins as an elegant techno thriller, displaying Berry at her most beautiful, devolves into a preposterous suspenser whose last reel is so contrived and manipulative that it destroys the decent elements in the first reels.

Has there ever been a successful techno thriller with shrewd use of the new sophisticated technology I seem to recall only mediocre or bad ones, from 1990s “Hackers” and “The Net” to “AntiTrust” to last year's poor indie “The Dying Gaul.” We have seen effective computer use in actions (usually by the villains), but few directors have found a way to make the Internet, an undramatic world from a visual standpoint, exciting on screen.

This picture, whose poor title makes it sound more generic than it is, revolves around one question: How far would a person go to keep a secret from the past

Halle Berry plays Rowena Price, and investigative reporter who suspects that the murder of her friend Grace (Nicki Aycox) might be connected to powerful ad exec Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). Early on, we see the two women chatting intimately about some mysterious events and men of their lives at a subway station. To that extent, she goes undercover with the help of her associate, the brilliant techie Miles Haley (Giovanni Ribisi), who's physically attracted to her.

Upping the ante, screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, working from a story by Jon Bokenkamp, assigns Rowena not only a second identity, but a third one, too. Rowena poses as Katherine Pogue, a temp at Hills agency, and as Veronica, a girl with whom Hill flirts online. We see Rowena switching identities with impressive facility (and even more impressive costumes), endangering her life in a series of encounters with her womanizer boss, at work and off work.

Along the way, we get semi-credible portraits of the people surrounding Rowena. There are interactions with Miles, ready for the next tough assignment whenever Rowena needs him, which is often. Their communication is replete with sexual innuendos; at one point, Miles, hiding ina corder, is watching Rowena having sex with her boyfriend.

It comes as no surprise that all the men have metand sleptwith the blonde victim Grace. Soon Rowena discovers that she isnt the only one changing identities. Duality is the rule of the game: Every character in the film has a double identity. In the last chapters, Foley forgets logic and drama and resorts to a preposterously Freudian resolution, which is further marred by the fact that it's being narrated and illustrated. We feel cheated, a feeling that's reinforced by the picture's last shot, which is meant to suggest ambiguity and that the story might not be over yet.

Scenes set in the advertising world are appealing to the eyes if not to the ears. (See below). You may get a kick out of some of the women who work for Hill, such as the tall and elegant Josie (Daniella Van Graas), an Amazonian assistant identified as lesbian, gossipy and mousy secretaries, younger femmes who join the firm and immediately become objects of desire.

In the press notes, Foley says, “Everybody lies. It just depends on how big the lie is, and what the consequences of the lie are. The audience sometimes understands the characters behavior better than the character himself.” Sure, who will dispute this claim The great masters have always realized that characters' double lives lend themselves to something that the cinema is uniquely designed to do, show emotions and actions that they themselves are unaware of. But that premise doesn't necessarily make for a good thriller.

The characters exist in a world in which nothing is as it seems. Setting the tale in an advertising agency is sound since it's a world based on surfaces and on packaging products. The idea of online anonymity is also sound and timely for a movie, suggesting the dangerous gamble involved in presuming that the persons we speak to online are who they say they are. “Perfect Stranger” contains one or two good scenes that exploit the collision between Rowena's virtual world with her real world (except, the real world is not that real).

Berry gives creditable performance as a tortured woman who can't forget a traumatic incident from her childhood. Buffeted and battered, Ro is vulnerable yet forceful when she needs to be. We are led to believe that Ro is good at pretending, at wearing different faces; for better or worse, it's become her way of survival.

Berry must have been intrigued by the multiple characters she's asked to embody. First, there is the Ro who's trying to prove that Hill is the ad exec who killed Grace. Then, there's the Ro she is when shes with Miles, which is also an act; she manipulates his crush on her to get what she wants. Then, theres Katherine Pogue, the temp she poses as at Hills ad agency. Finally, theres the “real” Ro, the Ro she rarely shows or knows (revealed in the film's last ten minutes).

Costume designer Rene Kalfus meets the challenge of creating a different look for Ro's various facets, her public persona, her private self, and the invented facade of Katherine. Berry, who's truly stunning, looks great in all of her costumes, and there one red dress that places her alongside such elegant Hollywood beauties as Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn.

Considering the formulaic writing, Bruce Willis also gives a decent performance as a man who will do anything to succeed. Hill is an ad man adept at glossy packaging and persuasive spin, and yet, ironically, he accepts people at face value, which explains his shock and hurt when he discovers Katherines ulterior motive. Willis is seductively charming as a womanizer who refuses to judge himself, or to absorb the jealousy and power of his rich wife.

Ribisi brings his customary emotional intensity as Ros techie Man Friday Miles, a youngster with a crush on his boss that she happily exploits. A puzzler, Miles wont stop until all the pieces fit. Like the other characters, Miles has a dark side, living a double life and wearing a mask, though for him, secrets are more like erotic fantasies. Later on, Miles becomes a Iago figure, titillated by his own manipulations.

As written and directed, “Perfect Stranger” is meant to be a morally ambiguous tale about duality–the face we present and the face we keep hidden–and about the justification we give ourselves that all of our actions are acceptable. But, in the end, the picture comes across as tale of convoluted immorality, negating the disquieting tone, and the little ambiguity and complexity that prevailed in the early chapters.

Polished production values make it easier to digest a thriller that increasingly gets trashier and trashier. As a locale, New York lends itself perfectly to the saga's voyeuristic themes; the City's eroticism is palpable in look, feel, and even light.

One sequence, which depicts Miless residence as seen from Ros subjective eyes, is particularly striking courtesy of the gifted production designer Bill Groom. The journey Ro makes from the top of the stairs into the common hallway, into Miless apartment is divided look into three looks: first, the conventional landlord look; then the social area where Miles might have friends over, and then the more private area where he works on his computer and keeps to himself. Each area has a decidedly different look that reveals itself briefly (and creepily) as Ro walks through the place.

Too bad that “Perfect Stranger” fails to make a better dramatic use of the Internet since the world of chat rooms plays a central role in our lives. The Internet has become a potentially attractive connecting thread, as it's much easier to meet someone by typing on a computer than face-to-face. But the movie only partially succeeds in conveying the dangers in such communication, how we interact with each other as strangers yet pretend to be intimate. A good Hollywood movie screams to be made about the anonymity of the Internet, its functions as a seductive narcotic, its new rules of behavior, and the growing alienation based on the feeling that the more we interconnect online, the more disconnected we might become from ourselves and others.

Rowena Price (Halle Berry)
Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis)
Miles Haley (Giovanni Ribisi)
Cameron (Gary Dourdan)

Credits

Sony
Directed by James Foley.
Screenplay: Todd Komarnicki, based on a story by Jon Bokenkamp.
Produced by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas.
Executive Producers: Ron Bozman, Deborah Schindler, Charles Newirth.
Director of Photography: Anastas Michos
Production designer: Bill Groom
Editing: Christopher Tellefsen
Costume designer: Rene Ehrlich Kalfus
Music: Antonio Pinto.

The Film's Look

James Foley has always been more successful as a stylist than as dramatist or storyteller. Hence, would like to single out in greater detail the film's technical accomplishments.

Meticulous attention is paid to the habitat of the three central characters. Groom has created an opulent, angular, contemporary look for the offices. The original design, slick with futuristic details, has been decorated with contrasting textures, old factory objects, raw and natural material like steel and concrete.
Situated way up, Hills ad agency H2A looks down on the City. The spare, cutting-edge offices are also mirrored in the chic restaurants Hill and Ro frequent, like the stylish Manhattan watering holes Asia de Cuba and Sapa.

Ro resides in the famous Ansonia Hotel (Broadway and 73rd Street). In stark contrast to Hills offices, Ros apartment is spacious and grand yet dark, typifying the elegant living spaces within the landmark building. Her apartment is in the middle of the world, as she looks out, others look in. Ro's earthier side is seen in her older, rambling Upper West Side apartment, the cluttered newspaper office where she works, and the neighborhood bars where she hangs out with Miles and her editor.

For his part, Miles occupies a seedy, cramped West Village apartment that's in chaotic disarray; it's an underground place where he buries his dark secrets.

The film's most striking location is the newly-completed 7 World Trade Center, the site of Harrison Hills offices. Designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, it's the first of the new buildings on the former World Trade Center site to have been completed. The sites wraparound views of Lower Manhattan, the Hudson River, and New Jersey, all of which are visible in the film, are stunning.

Other New York City locations include the ornate Cipriani catering space on 42nd St. across from Grand Central Station (originally a huge 1920s bank), Hotel Gansevoort in the trendy Meatpacking District, the historic bar Chumleys in Greenwich Village, Riverside Park, Queens Supreme Civil Court, Roosevelt Island's Coler-Goldwater Hospital, and the massive meeting rooms and corridors of such downtown municipal buildings as One Centre Street and the original U.S. Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian).