I Watched This On Purpose: Perfect Stranger
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Cultural infamy: Beyond a super-generic title that inspires little more than Balki Bartokomous references? Critics were nearly unanimous in finding Perfect Stranger a mediocrity at best, a travesty at worst: Its 31 Metacritic score puts it firmly in the red, and it scores a 10 on the Tomatometer, with only 14 of the 123 sampled critics in favor of it—many of those from dubious-sounding Internet outlets. Among the money quotes: "Halle Berry enters that stage of her career where we seriously consider asking for her Oscar back" (Ty Burr, Boston Globe), "a rote compendium of Internet paranoia clichés, with frequent pauses to admire Berry's derriere, décolletage, and related assets" (Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly), and "a disorienting cocktail of illogic and hysteria that requires an 11th-hour soliloquy just to explain what's happened" (John Anderson, Variety). In her review, our own Tasha Robinson never found a satisfying answer to the rhetorical question, "Why is any of this idiocy happening?"
Curiosity factor: Reports from trusted friends touting the film as a modern so-bad-it's-good classic were actually a bit superfluous; I was already on board. I have a helpless fascination with thrillers about technology, particularly those that know just enough about it—which is to say, very little—to be scared out of their wits. (See also: I Watched This On Purpose: Untraceable, featuring death by page views and the attack of the runaway OnStar system.) Invariably, they're all horribly dated, often at the time they've released, and their alarmist messages are never worth the hysteria: Is anyone still worried that e-commerce will lead us all to become freakish shut-ins, like Sandra Bullock in The Net? Or that our conflicts will all play out on the virtual battlefields laid out by Tron, Disclosure, or Virtuosity? Tech-thrillers always reach the grimmest imaginable conclusions. Chat rooms? A haven for sexual predators. Instant messaging? The death of meaningful communication. Web cams? The exclusive province of deviants or, if Antitrust is to be believed, Bill Gates. For those of us who have happily incorporated all these advancements into our lives without becoming loveless trolls or having our purity violated by Second Life, the brand of paranoia whipped up by Perfect Stranger is pretty hilarious.
Other curiosities: The train-wreck factor of watching Halle Berry's career spiral further downward, seemingly never to hit bottom. Another sure-to-be-bizarre turn from Giovanni Ribisi, who may be the only young actor capable of winning a tic-off against Jeremy Davies. And direction by James Foley, whose résumé includes Glengarry Glen Ross on one end, and the Madonna vehicle Who's That Girl on the other. Which Foley would show up? And could anyone save a whodunit that was reportedly shot with three different endings, à la Clue?
The viewing experience: Gloriously lame-brained. Let's start with the closing voiceover, which underlines (and highlights, and tacks exclamation points on) the film's prissy attitude about the humanity-sucking world of Internet communication:
"It starts with a quiet hum, an empty screen inviting you. 'Come inside,' it says. 'We're always open.' It's a world you think where actions have no consequences, where guilt is cloaked in anonymity, where there are no fingerprints. An invisible universe filled with strangers, interconnected online and disconnected in life. It will steal your secrets, corrupt your dreams, and co-opt your identity. Because in this world, where you can be anything you want, anyone you want, you just might lose sight of who you are."
Pretty deep stuff. Perhaps there's a slogan in there for Google's new web browser: "It will steal your secrets and corrupt your dreams." In any case, that bit of narration places Perfect Stranger firmly in the tradition of clueless technophobic paranoid thrillers. Though computer wizardry does play a positive role early in the film, when Berry's character, a gotcha journalist for a New York tabloid, gets the goods on a Mark Foley-like congressional intern scandal, the interwebs soon carry more sinister implications. Specifically, the film points the finger at the Instant Messaging phenomenon, which is one part erotic to 10 parts creepy, invasive, and potentially murderous.
The crazily convoluted plot opens with Berry quitting her job after her congressional scandal piece (Headline: "Sachs-ual Harassment") gets spiked for political reasons. But her keen investigative skills are given no time to atrophy when the body of childhood friend turns up bloated and mutilated in a river. Suspicions fall on a major advertising executive and notorious philanderer played by Bruce Willis, who apparently enjoyed the victim's company for a weekend and wrote her love letters via Hotmail with lines like, "I'm going to fuck you so hard, I'm going to split you in half." Pouring herself into tight, just-this-side-of-professional work garments, Berry infiltrates Willis' agency by taking a temp job, then does whatever she can to get information out of him. With the help of computer-savvy friend (and secret stalker) Ribisi, Berry takes on a virtual identity, too, and starts to engage Willis in white-hot IM exchanges like this one:
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Perfect Stranger is loaded with nail-biting, computer-related thriller moments, like a scene where Berry and Willis are web-chatting within 10 feet of each other ("The IMs are coming from inside the office!!!," says I) and another heart-stopper that has Willis sidling over to Berry's desk as an incriminating image is frozen on her monitor. (How does Berry handle this terrible crisis while still remaining sexy and flirtatious? It's called acting, people.) Still, there's a part of me that laments that the film had to be a thriller at all; I could have watched a whole movie of Halle Berry just typing away in a chat room, a babe in the woods, luring serial masturbators like a virtual Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Once the thriller plotting takes over completely, Foley and screenwriter Tom Komarnicki lurch into lurid, seemingly unnecessary flashbacks to Berry's childhood, introduce the many red herrings that could result in three possible endings, and work to scare moviegoers into never allowing their eyes to be dilated again. Needless to say, the big twist is as arbitrary as it gets, since it was more or less decided upon like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The big voiceover monologue at the end was necessary just to remind us that Perfect Stranger was once concerned with weightier issues, like all the filth that gets shuttled through the series of tubes.
Ah, but there is one more element to savor: Giovanni Ribisi at his most anti-charismatic. Tasked with suggesting a perhaps unhealthy obsession with Berry's character, Ribisi goes several steps further by making every line-reading and physical gesture so unsavory that any rational woman would issue a restraining order. I'll spare you his ickiest scene for fear of spoiling the movie, so I'll leave you with the following exchange. Watch where Ribisi's hand goes:
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How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? About 50 percent. There's nothing novel about a badly plotted whodunit—though this one is particularly convoluted—but between Berry and Ribisi's ripe performances and the trumped-up anti-Internet hysteria, Perfect Stranger belongs on the clueless techno-thriller pantheon.