CATWOMAN

PG-13

-By Ethan Alter


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A film like Catwoman comes along at least once every summer. You know the kind of movie I'm talking about--a production that is so mired in bad press, with every new trailer and publicity shot promising disaster, that you wonder if the studio has the guts to release it at all. Then the film comes out and proves exactly as awful as it was rumored to be. Last summer's "disaster" picture was The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a terrible would-be blockbuster that was plagued by stories of on-set feuds and last-minute revisions. For a while, it looked like Paramount's remake of The Stepford Wives might take this year's crown, but it opened to better-than-anticipated reviews. So the honor instead falls to Catwoman, as many predicted it would when the first stills of Halle Berry in her ridiculous cat suit made the rounds online.

The signs of trouble were there from the beginning. Catwoman had lain dormant for more than a decade, ever since Warner Bros. tried and failed to lure Michelle Pfeiffer (who embodied the role so memorably in 1992's Batman Returns) into headlining her own spinoff. When it was finally revived, the Batman movies were out of vogue, so the studio decided to rewrite the character from the ground up--a decision that rarely proves successful. Selina Kyle became Patience Phillips, a mild-mannered graphic designer who is killed after finding herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Selina, Patience survives her brush with death thanks to some helpful kitties, and subsequently creates an empowered feline-themed alter ego, complete with leather outfit and whip. Unlike her comic-book counterpart, this Catwoman also inherits cat-like powers from her rescuers, including increased agility, razor-sharp senses and a healthy appetite for canned tuna.

Since there's no Batman in this universe, the role of the authoritative love interest is filled by Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), a crack police detective who falls for Patience, even as he makes it his mission to bring Catwoman to justice. And in place of a memorable Bat-villain like the Joker or Two-Face, we have Sharon Stone doing her best Norma Desmond impression as Laurel Hedare, the ex-supermodel wife of a shady cosmetics tycoon (Lambert Wilson). Their company is about to release a new anti-aging cream, which, unbeknownst to the general public, happens to possess deadly side effects. Patience is murdered after stumbling onto this secret, and she uses her 'second' life to track down the person who ordered her death. Of course, the audience already knows the mastermind's identity, so much of the movie is spent waiting for the heroine to connect the rather obvious dots, in between a series of poorly choreographed fight scenes.

If the rest of Catwoman were pitched at Stone's loony level, it could have been an instant camp classic. But the movie is neither funny nor overly earnest enough to achieve camp status. As with most troubled projects, the script passed through a number of hands, which is apparent from the choppy narrative. To lend the proceedings some visual pizzazz (and to distract us from the numerous plot holes), the studio hired French director Pitof, who cut his teeth designing special effects for such movies as The City of Lost Children. At first it appears like they made the right choice; the opening half-hour features lots of fluid camerawork and some great comic-book-like images. Once Berry dons her cat duds, though, the visual style completely changes, no doubt to accommodate the extensive use of CGI and stunt doubles in the action sequences. The editing becomes jagged and borderline-incomprehensible, while the digital Catwoman proves distractingly shoddy. Through it all, Berry purrs and poses with a nervous grin plastered across her face. She's a lovely woman, no argument there, but she simply doesn't possess the slinky sexuality required for the role. Where Pfeiffer (and the Ur-Catwoman Julie Newmar) radiated animal attraction, Berry is too self-conscious in her attempts to be sexy. She looks like she'd rather be at home watching TV than prowling the night in kinky S&M wear.

It's a requirement for every comic-book movie to leave the door open for a sequel, and Catwoman is no exception. Still, I somehow doubt that the studio (or Berry, for that matter) will be in a hurry to give this kitty another life. Catwoman will most likely join the ranks of The Punisher and the aforementioned LXG as comic-book adaptations that won't be getting a sequel anytime soon.

-Ethan Alter


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