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Whodunit? `Stranger' makes it hard to care

April 13, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

There's been a lot of agonized hand-wringing about the cost to society of the possible demise of newspapers, but one major negative consequence has been overlooked. What the heck are the movies going to do for careers for intrepid heroines if newspaper reporter is out of the running?

True, Rowena Price (Halle Berry), ace investigative reporter for the mythical New York Courier and protagonist of "Perfect Stranger," is not exactly Lois Lane material. She's introduced using false pretenses to entrap a U.S. senator and then record him without his knowledge, activities that will not endear her to the Pulitzer board, but no matter. "God," Rowena says triumphantly, "I love this job."

For this is the movies, after all, and making Rowena a reporter makes it easier for her to launch her own investigation of prime suspect Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) when childhood friend Grace Clayton (Nicki Aycox) turns up brutally murdered. So much information to gather, so little time.

As might be guessed by now, "Perfect Stranger" is a star vehicle -- set in New York, the city that never sleeps, or even takes naps. It is an acceptable enough thriller, neither the worst you've seen nor the opposite. However, it's also one of those films in which the question of why it was made is as much of a puzzle as who did the awful deed. By the time you figure these out, you no longer care.

On the most basic level, this James Foley-directed film got the go-ahead because two bankable stars agreed to be in it. So watching it is kind of like viewing the visual echo of a business deal, or, more specifically, a merger between powerful corporations, each with its own assets and skill sets.

Berry, for her part, gets to look great and dominate the picture, while Willis, who by this time can do these roles in his sleep, can likely be taken at his word when he says he signed on because of the working conditions: "Not a hard day at the office -- go to work and flirt with Halle Berry."

Just as the film's initial entrapped senator subplot plays out, Rowena runs into old pal Grace on a Manhattan subway platform. Seems Grace is in town to pursue the physical side of a liaison that began online with Harrison Hill. Yes, that Harrison Hill, the big-bucks advertising executive who is the master of all he surveys. So when Grace turns up dead the very next day, Rowena knows whom she wants to start investigating.

In this mission she has the assistance of pal Miles Haley (Giovanni Ribisi), your standard demon Internet researcher whose computer can do everything except cook dinner and make the bed. Miles has a major crush on Rowena, to the point of telling her: "Can I say for the record, 'Wow'?" when she looks especially good. And because he is played by Ribisi, who specializes in this, Miles also has something of a weirdo vibe.

Miles uses his computer to get Rowena a temp job at Hill's advertising agency, where the boss, not surprisingly, notices Our Girl and tries to put the moves on her even though he's very much married. Unbeknownst to Hill, Rowena is also anonymously chatting with him online in the kind of conversation where she tells him her hair is "dirty blond" and he responds, "I like dirty." That's how they do things in New York.

As written by Todd Komarnicki from a story by Jon Bokenkamp, "Perfect Stranger" offers lots of misdirection and closing twists as it plays with the notion of who's playing whom for a fool. By the time everything falls into place, however, it doesn't much matter. The best thrillers don't just show up for the closing credits, they are involving all along the way. That's where "Perfect Stranger" goes imperfectly wrong.

"Perfect Stranger." MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity, some disturbing violent images and language. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. In general release.

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