So this PERFECT STRANGER screening was a perfect storm of perfect perfection for us bright-eyed new homeowners. But it turned out my wife had a prior commitment that night. As the household's resident well-connected area freelance movie critic (my paper hadn't gone out of business yet) I had been looking forward to escorting my tall leggy spouse past the velvet ropes (yes, they had velvet ropes) to the elite press section, just like a true media power couple. But she couldn't make it. In consolation my wife set me up on a playdate with a fellow employee at her agency who expressed interest in going, a guy named Doug. So I took him out instead of my wife. You know something, though? The sex afterwards just wasn't the same. Rimshot! Wakka wakka wakka!
Actually it was appropos, given the essentials of the picture, to take some stranger from a Cleveland ad agency, especially an ad agency that had never even acknowledged my resume when I sent it in first thing in the morning (but called my wife to set up a job interview two minutes after she applied online, at something like 5:02 p.m.) to see PERFECT STRANGER. As the movie unreeled, with its depiction of seduction and duplicity and possible murder at a big NYC advertising firm, I kept bugging Doug with stage-whispered asides. "IS THIS WHAT'S IT'S LIKE IN YOUR OFFICE? IS THIS WHAT IT'S LIKE IN YOUR OFFICE, HUH, IS IT, HUH, HUH?"
Halle Berry portrays Rowena, a crusading reporter for a fictitious New York Post-lookalike taboid rag. After her big scoop against a sleazy conservative politician is squelched by the editors, she quits, only to be immediately buttonholed by a skanky old gal friend Grace (Nicki Aycox) who says she's got dirt on prominent New York advertising executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), with whom she's had a torrid online and off-line affair. When Grace turns up gruesomely murdered, Rowena goes undercover, with the help of her platonic boy-pal and ace hacker accomplice (Giovanni Ribisi), landing a job at Hill's agency - such a big company, I do believe, one of the plot points is that they're angling for the Nike account - as a glamorous secretary, trying to get close to the boss-turned-homicide-suspect. Harrison Hill (I do loathe that character name; sounds like a superhero comics moniker, like J. Jonah Jameson's principle investor or something) seems to respond to Rowena's calculated flirtations - but if she gets too close to the truth, will she be the next victim?
While there is supposedly a theme about powerful men getting away with ghastly crimes and hypocrisies (and Rowena must take a male pseudonym in order to get her stories published, an indignity not even Lois Lane suffered), it blurs in the storyline that ensues, a thriller plotline that gets somewhat bogged down in additional issues of online voyeurism, digital-age obsession, illusion and betrayal. Consequently it has more curves and turns than Ms. Berry's physique, including a jolt at the end, that maybe goes a bit overboard in parceling out the twists.
PERFECT STRANGER proceeded to earn venomous reviews from everywhere, even some of the local scribblers who can usually be counted on to cheerlead any rerun of "Hot in Cleveland" or anything else with a hometown connection. I can't exactly see what all that vitriol was about except that the picture didn't have much positive to depict in the news media or the ad media or the online community (and to suggest that someone who looks like Halle Berry would ever work in any such place just sends the envy factor into stratosphere). Sure, a lot of the `action' consists of characters typing on computer screens at each other in chat rooms, a suspense gimmick that hasn't translated very successfully to the screen since WARGAMES, but I'll gave the hardcore haters of the flick this much: Once upon a time at least you could trust your narrator to be straight with the facts. But with stuff like USUAL SUSPECTS, FIGHT CLUB, IDENTITY or SOURCE CODE going more and more out there, trying to pull the rug of reality out from under you with plot surprises that make everything you thought was happening a lie...then okay, I can see a jaded critic getting upset with PERFECT STRANGER, wondering if it's even worth investing emotionally in the storyline anymore.
Still, is that a fatal offense for a decent, well-acted neo-noir? It didn't ruin PERFECT STRANGER for me, and I enjoyed the picture's essential pulp-paperback entertainment elements and slinky ambiance, rather similar to the first BASIC INSTINCT (also with a strong local connection in the form of Cleveland native writer Joe Eszterhas), right down to the rather creepy detail that there's no one in the script ultimately worth rooting for. So I'd been after my wife for years to finally watch the picture she'd abandoned me to Doug for that night, and if you'd been scared away from PERFECT STRANGER by the negative writeups I'd tell you to give it a chance as well.
But even so, none of you will have had the opportunity to behold the movie the way I did, in living HalleBerryVision (or, more accurately, HalleBerryAndGiovanniRibisiVision).Yes, we sat down in front in the second row, and when the two glamorous stars came out to address the public they couldn't have been more than 20 yards away from me. It is very likely molecules of air respirated out of Halle Berry's body went into my lungs that night (unless damn Doug sucked them up first). Ms. Berry looked gorgeous - this was not long before her pregnancy was announced - and put up with the questions from the audience with poised actress-patience. Someone in the back wanted Halle Berry to move back to Cleveland and make movies here. She executed some polite, non-committal answer, but I could practically imagine the stir that might cause on the security channels of the waiting Special Forces bodyguards outside: "CLEVELANDERS ASKING HALLE BERRY TO STAY! GET THAT HELICOPTER RUNNING! PREPARE FOR EMERGENCY EXTRACTION!" But she and Ribisi graciously and safely withdrew, in the company of Mayor Frank Jackson and other dignitaries.
I must sound like a sleazy Halle Berry stalker (which is kind a "spoiler" in the movie, BTW). I'm not. I haven't even seen MONSTER'S BALL, let alone CATWOMAN. There is just the ships-passing-in-the-night factor that I spent my adolescence/teen years in Solon, adjacent to Bedford where Halle Berry was raised. And it's hard not to think that maybe in one of those parallel universes that physicists talk about, Halle Berry and I might have actually hooked up in our younger days, if I had ever bothered to step outside and not spend the night sweating over schoolwork in the futile belief it could get me a job. Maybe we would have met by chance one day at the Solon-Bedford border, in the gap between the guard towers, spotlights and barb wire. Maybe romance would have flown between us. Maybe Gov. James Rhodes would have added to the state constitution the so-called "Cassady Amendment" - permitting marriage between minors on humanitarian grounds, as long as the groom shows unmistakable signs of lonely-loser-misfit-dom looming in adulthood.
Halle and I would be very happy together, as I went on to my freelance movie-reviewing non-career while she stayed home to cook, clean and win the Nobel Prize for the diabetes cure she'd been researching in her spare time over there in Bedford's Ben Venue Labs (shoutout to Ben Venue Labs! You guys got my job application, right. Right?...). On our romantic weekends I'd tell Halle that she was every bit as beautiful as those sex-symbol actresses I'd be interviewing all the time, but I would reassure her that the show-business life was nothing she'd want; it would probably just leave her splattered across the tabloids all the time, with relationship scandals involving NBA players and R&B singers and stuff. And we'd gently kiss the night away, with the Quiet Storm on the radio...
And when I was asleep Halle would grab the ten-inch butcher knife she'd been hiding under the bed and stab me through the heart. At her murder trial Judge Stokes would chastise Halle: "You been married to Charles Cassady Jr. for 20 years and then kill him in cold blood! Girlfriend, what took you so damn long?!"
See, even in my fantasies I can't catch a break. Anyway, PERFECT STRANGER - no masterpiece but underrated and unfairly smeared. Doug and his ad agency - you should've hired me, bro'. There were more movie invites where that one came from.