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A catnip high

'Catwoman' leavens comic book fantasy with camp sophistication.

July 23, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Catwoman" is as swift and light on its feet as its heroine, Halle Berry. Though stylish and full of technical razzle-dazzle, no special effect or cliffhanging stunt overshadows Berry in the role as a mousy, diffident office worker reincarnated as the sexy, glamorous superhuman Catwoman. Berry clearly has fun playing an action heroine, yet her part also requires her to integrate two radically different personalities. Catwoman is a staple of the Batman adventures, but this is the first time she's had a movie all her own.

"Catwoman" is also pure camp, with its comic book antics and its mythological hocus-pocus, fantastic plot developments and one-dimensional arch villains. Not everybody will be able to swallow its heady romanticism, yet its French director, Pitof, has brought sophistication to a comic book sensibility, which helps some purple patches of dialogue along with other absurdities. What is catnip to some may be a turnoff to others.

Ultimately, Berry's Patience Philips must accept that she is Catwoman, retaining her sense of right and wrong -- not without a struggle -- and her knowledge that along with freedom comes isolation and loneliness. Pitof brings to a script by many hands the same kind of romanticism that envelops Louis Feuillade's 1915 silent, "Les Vampires," which features the intrepid black bodysuited and masked Irma Vep.

Berry's well-named Patience is an aspiring Manhattan artist who has gotten stuck in a job as a graphic designer for a major cosmetics conglomerate. It is run by an egotistical tyrant, George Hedare (Lambert Wilson), who has just dumped his own wife (Sharon Stone), a onetime supermodel, as his corporate logo in favor of a younger woman. (Cold and ruthless, Stone's Laurel bitterly remarks that "I do" was the last meaningful statement her husband ever made to her.) Hedare has also just announced a new product, which actually reverses the aging process, but of course there's a dangerous hitch to it.

Earlier there's a credibility-straining sequence in which Patience climbs out her loft window to rescue a cat, a foolish act that nearly costs her life -- OK, it is a gesture in keeping with Patience's dutiful nature. The far-fetched moment does have a double payoff: First, the cat is not an ordinary alley cat but, significantly, a rare Egyptian mau, and second, a handsome policeman (Benjamin Bratt) enters the plot, coming to her rescue and becoming immediately smitten by her. This brings Bratt's Tom Lone into the action before Patience is transformed into the black-leather-clad and masked Catwoman, adding to her intrigue as her personality changes.

"Catwoman" is sleek, with all manner of spectacular and glamorous settings, such as the vast Hedare headquarters and the Hedare mansion, which is a Beaux Arts version of the White House, just as big and lots more sybaritic inside. The action is plentiful and amusing but does not overwhelm Catwoman herself.

Bratt is a dashing, sensitive yet forceful foil for Berry, and as villains, Wilson, a veteran French leading man, and Stone could scarcely be nastier. Bratt and Stone have a fierce confrontation, which frankly is all the more fun now that it has been revealed that she rejected him as a potential leading man in a projected "Basic Instinct 2." (Perhaps Stone did not see Bratt's extraordinary performance in the 2001 "Pinero" as the tormented poet and playwright Miguel Pinero.) Frances Conroy plays an elegant and enigmatic cat fancier who sees Patience as a reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Bast, sacred protector and avenger of women, who possessed the head of a cat.



MPAA rating: PG-13 for action violence and some sensuality.

Times guidelines: Standard genre violence, which may be too intense for small children.

Halle Berry...Patience Philips/Catwoman

Benjamin Bratt...Tom Lone

Sharon Stone...Laurel Hedare

Lambert Wilson...George Hedare

Frances Conroy...Ophelia Powers

A Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow presentation. Director Pitof. Producers Denise Di Novi, Edward L. McDonnell. Executive producers Bruce Berman, Michael Fottrell, Robert Kirby, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan. Screenplay by John Brancato & Michael Ferris and John Rogers; based on a story by Theresa Rebeck and Brancato & Ferris. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Editor Sylvie Landra. Music Klaus Badelt. Costumes Angus Strathie. Production designer Bil Brzeski. Supervising art director Shepherd Frankel. Art directors Don Macaulay, Dan Hermansen. Set decorators Lisa K. Sessions, Carol Lavallee.

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