The small one that gets away

Posted: April 13, 2007

If you like thrillers, then you're familiar with the MacGuffin. It's the element - a package, a necklace, a Maltese falcon, even - that propels the suspense, but in the end proves not be a major plot point, just the bait the filmmakers cast to reel you in.

Perfect Stranger is the Egg MacGuffin of whodunits, a cheesy affair that casts so many baited lures that they tangle each other and don't hook you.

In this one about a drop-dead gorgeous reporter out to solve the killing of a childhood friend lately involved with a married businessman, every character is guilty. Of Internet sex, perversion, adultery, computer hacking, abuse of power.

And director James Foley, who reportedly shot three different endings each implicating a different murderer, is guilty of plot overkill. And also of underdirecting his actors, who have the magnetism of mannequins.

Halle Berry plays the blindingly beautiful Rowena, an investigative journalist committed to finding the killer of her chum, Grace. Bruce Willis is the self-satisfied ad-agency honcho Harrison Hill, who dallied with Grace until she blackmails him. Giovanni Ribisi plays Ro's best friend and computer-savvy sidekick, a wisecracker who nurses an unrequited crush on her and helps her get a job with Hill so she can investigate his nasty habits.

Foley's imagery, nocturnal and backlit, urgently teases, "I've got a Victoria's Secret." In terms of product placement, this is convenient, as Harrison's company reps the lingerie line. Heineken and Reebok are flogged, too. So aggressively that I expected to see Berry slink in wearing a beribboned lace bustier and Ringmaster low casuals while tossing back a bottle of the Dutch brew.

That doesn't happen. But Berry does stroke her laptop (a Vaio, this is a film from Sony subsidiary Columbia Pictures) more tenderly than Willis' cheek. Maybe this is to be expected in a movie that promises sex between bad people with good electronics.

The operative word is promises. Perfect Stranger never delivers. Berry in one killer ensemble after another isn't a substitute for sexy. Willis alternatingly seductive and savage looks like personality disorder, not character exposition.

Note to Foley: Before introducing a plot twist, make sure there's a plot to twist.


Perfect Stranger *1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by James Foley, written by Todd Komamicki and Jon Bonenkamp, distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 49 mins.

Rowena. . . Halle Berry

Harrison Hill. . . Bruce Willis

Miles. . . Giovanni Ribisi

Mia Hill. . . Paula Miranda

Parent's guide: R (sexuality, violence, disturbing imagery, profanity)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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