If “Perfect Stranger” were the perfect title for your film, so totally appropriate that you couldn’t conceivably call it anything else, then I guess it would be OK to use it, even though it will remind people of a certain ABC sitcom from the ’80s. But when your film is basically a USA Network-style cheesy thriller that could have been called anything generic — “Deadly Intent,” “Undercover Murder,” “To Catch a Killer,” whatever — then why would you call it “Perfect Stranger”? Do they WANT people to make jokes about Balki and Cousin Larry? What’s next? “Growing Pain”? “Family Tie”?
Any of those would probably be better (though not funnier) than the deadly serious “Perfect Stranger.” It stars Halle Berry, making two weekends in a row in which recent Best Actress Oscar winners embarrass themselves for money. (Hilary Swank trudged through “The Reaping” last week.) Berry plays Rowena, a hard-nosed investigative reporter who takes down dishonest politicians and other scoundrels through her New York Courier column, which she writes under a male pseudonym. When a story gets nixed because of office politics, Rowena becomes drunk and indignant and quits.
That’s good, actually, because it gives her plenty of free time to look into a new case. Her friend Grace (Nicki Aycox) has been freshly murdered, and Rowena thinks the man she was sleeping with — a philandering advertising tycoon named Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) — is the culprit. Rowena has Grace’s e-mails verifying she was having the affair, and Harrison is married, which might give him motive to kill his mistress. But she needs more proof, so she does the only sensible thing: She takes her findings to the police and has them investigate.
No, I’m kidding, of course. She creates a false identity and gets a temp job at Harrison’s ad agency, hoping she can cozy up to the boss and infiltrate his office for more evidence. She’s aided in this by Miles (Giovanni Ribisi), her tech-savvy friend at the Courier who secretly has the hots for her and is capable of all manner of techno-wizardry.
One of Miles’ accomplishments is so stupid, I just have to mention it. He helps Rowena set up an anonymous instant-messenger account so she can chat with Harrison Hill and lure him into incriminating himself. (Rowena, despite being 30 years old and a writer, has evidently never used an instant messenger program before.) Using a voice sample he recorded from Harrison, Miles rigs it so that when Harrison sends a message, Rowena’s computer reads it to her in Harrison’s voice. That’s ridiculous enough, of course; the only reason it’s being done is because otherwise, the movie audience would have to read the IMs off Rowena’s computer screen, and reading is boring when you’re at the movies. But making it even more preposterous: When the computer vocalizes Harrison’s messages, it does so with inflection, nuance, and emotion, rather than in the dispassionate computerized tones you’d expect. Why, it’s as though Harrison is right there, reading his messages in person! Stupid.
Anyway, Rowena succeeds in establishing a flirtatious relationship with her new boss, both in person and over the Internet. He coyly makes passes at her (with that trademarked Bruce Willis smirky smoothness), she kittenishly puts him off while roping him in. The screenplay (by Todd Komarnicki) overloads itself with so many seemingly irrelevant details — Rowena’s flashbacks to her troubled childhood, her ailing mother, the guy she and Grace both used to date, Harrison’s gorgeous wife, Harrison’s paranoia about corporate spies, the list goes on — that it’s exhausting trying to guess which are clues in solving the mystery and which are merely distractions. It’s a pointless endeavor; all you can do is wait for the movie to get around to explaining itself.
When the answers finally come … well, the less said about that, the better. Like so many lazy thrillers, the film lets its characters discover information through luck and coincidence, rather than through their own efforts. It’s bizarre that Miles would make a date with Rowena — whom we know he’s in love with — and then stand her up so he can implant some spyware in Harrison’s office. Did he forget he’d told Rowena to come over at that time? Of course no. But the movie needed to give Rowena a reason to be alone in Miles’ apartment (she knows where he keeps the spare key), and that was the best thing the movie could come up with.
Directed by James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The Chamber”), the film wants to be “Basic Instinct,” but it has neither the trashiness nor the boldness to come even close. Most of its thrills are on the order of “Will the JPG get e-mailed in time?” and “Can Rowena juggle several different IM conversations at once?” The result is a film that’s polished and smooth without ever being tense, or even interesting. And the finale? As Balki would say, don’t be ree-dee-culous.
C- (1 hr., 49 min.; )