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Back in my football-playing days, coaches would make us run all practice plays 25 yards past the line of scrimmage, each ending with a back or receiver breaking into the clear and on the way to a touchdown. Perfect, of course, except that it wasn't real. And that formulation pretty much captures James Foley's well-manicured thriller Perfect Stranger. The picture is narratively tidy but never convincing.

Written by Todd Komarnicki, Perfect Stranger is the story of Rowena Price (Halle Berry), the most glamorous reporter to bang on a keyboard since Brenda Starr. The flick gets off to a promising topical start when Rowena talks her way into a conservative senator's office posing as a representative of an outfit promoting "family values." The senator has opposed all initiatives promoting gay rights. Only (shades of Mark Foley), Rowena has pictures of the senator in compromising positions with a young male intern. All right, think those of us who like this ripped-from-the-headlines kind of stuff, this could be interesting.

Not really.

The right-wing gay politician story is dropped immediately and replaced with a tale far less involving. Rowena's childhood girlfriend, Grace Clayton (Nicki Aycox), shows up to gripe that a guy she met online and with whom she's engaged in some serious horizontaling is now being mean to her. About a nanosecond later, Grace has been poisoned with belladonna and dumped in the East River. The mean online guy turns out to be Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), the most powerful man in American advertising. Mysteriously, however, (or perhaps I should say conveniently) he has no money of his own. Rather, his fortune derives from his wife Mia (Paula Miranda) whose family, organ music please, has business interests in the medicinal uses of belladonna.

Well, given that Rowena takes special pleasure in turning her investigative skills on the rotten activities of powerful men -- flashback scenes to her childhood reveal that she was sexually abused by her father -- she decides that she's going to get the goods on Hill, prove he killed Grace and introduce him to the long arm of the law. She'll also get a front-page story, which won't be bad either. To this end, she employs the amazing electronic talents of her geeky newspaper buddy Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) who accesses the computer files at Hill's company and fixes it so that Rowena is hired as a clerical temp in Hill's own office. Since Hill is a serial philanderer, he doesn't wait until the morning coffee break on Rowena's first day to begin hitting on her. Of course, given that Halle Berry is almost breathtakingly beautiful, this is one development we feel no urgency to second guess.

Complications ensue. Rowena stalks Hill online, pretending to be a blonde named Veronica. Miles breaks through Hill's computer firewall and impersonates him to have cybersex with Rowena pretending to be Veronica. All kind of icky, but at least there's no threat of STDs. And gradually, a decently executed thriller convention is established. Grace is dead. Rowena wants to prove Hill killed her. But having been to movies previously, we begin to have other suspects. We want to like Miles, but he is kind of creepy. When we learn that he had an affair with Grace, we watch him carefully. Mia is rich and runway-model gorgeous, but she has the belladonna connection, and she has plenty of reason to want to snuff her husband's mistress. Perhaps Hill's ace assistant Josie (Daniella Van Graas) sees her duties as including the elimination of pests of the sort Grace was becoming before her death. And then there's Rowena's old boyfriend Cameron (Gary Dourdan), who also had an affair with Grace and may even have gotten her pregnant. (When asked if he was sleeping with Grace, Miles answers, "Who wasn't?") There seems to no reason for Cameron to be in the movie save to be a suspect. After awhile, I even began to wonder about Gina (Clea Lewis), the chatty co-worker at Hill's company whose real responsibility in the film is to provide a lot of exposition disguised as water-cooler gossip.

Questions elude all this careful construction. Why does Rowena write under a pen name, and why does she write under the name of a man? What does it matter that Josie is a lesbian? Why would an executive of Hill's stature have a glass office where he can be observed all day long by his employees? Since Hill knows his wife is angered by his constant sexual infidelities, why doesn't he close the curtains in the hotel rooms he rents?

I grant that none of this gets in the way of an ending that genuinely surprises; thrillers so often don't. But even in admiring the careful plot construction we find ourselves caring much less than we want. Berry works hard, and her Rowena comes the closest, but the characters in Perfect Stranger never take on the breath of life.

click to enlarge Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) and Rowena Price (Halle Berry) - play head games in Perfect Stranger. - 2007 COLUMBIA PICTURES
  • 2007 Columbia Pictures
  • Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) and Rowena Price (Halle Berry) play head games in Perfect Stranger.
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