Does Michael Douglas ever stop glimmering? In A Perfect Murder (Warner Bros.), the swank, voluptuously morose new thriller in which he plays a wealthy New Yorker who tries to do away with his unfaithful wife, Douglas, as usual, has the look of a corporate conqueror made entirely of tarnished gold. Tall, tan, and delicately fleshy, with priceless suits and a full head of exquisitely combed back hair, he might be primping for a GQ fashion spread on the glory of the middle-aged executive, yet there’s a rich glow of rage coming from those pampered pores. Douglas’ highly polished aura of corruption does more than outshine the other actors. The film’s atmosphere of luxe malevolence seems to emanate right from his cutthroat sheen.
A remake of the entertaining Alfred Hitchcock potboiler Dial M for Murder (1954), A Perfect Murder has been directed, by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), in a style that might be described as mid-period Adrian Lyne; the film could just as well have been entitled Indecently Attractive Fatal Proposal. The cocktail glasses clink seductively, the overhead light seems to melt everyone’s faces to pure cream and shadow, and much of the action takes place in the sort of ridiculously spacious, marble-glam, priceless-art-object-strewn apartment that looks like a posh mausoleum for its own inhabitants. Douglas plays millionaire industrialist Steven Taylor, who’s smart enough to figure out that his gorgeous young wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow), is having an affair with a sexy, longhaired, dangerously unshaven artist, David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen), whose canvases are portraits streaked with violent slashes of color. Why, exactly, has she strayed? Whatever the reason might have been in the script, it now comes down to this: Michael Douglas is an angry lizard, and anyone who’s married to him will surely need a break from massaging his scales.
Wounded by the revelation of his wife’s infidelity, Taylor pays a visit to Shaw’s paint-spattered dark loft and confronts his rival with a surprise offer: He’ll pay Shaw half a million dollars to murder Emily. Taylor even has a plan cooked up: He’ll provide Shaw with a key to the apartment and then phone Emily at a fixed time – at which point Shaw, pretending to be an anonymous intruder, will spring from the shadows and strike. This is the same scheme that powered Hitchcock’s film, only now, in the age of media-wide adultery, it feels far more deeply misogynistic. The fact that Taylor, in his black-hearted fury, would relish the chance to snuff not the man who was sleeping with his wife but the loved one herself appears to grow out of the ugliest side of Douglas’ gargoyle grin. The plot now features a prominent howler as well: The telephone-call gambit, which Hitch employed to set up a famous episode in 3-D, makes no sense in the age of answering machines. Taylor has to assume that his wife is going to get out of her bath and walk all the way to the kitchen just to answer the damn phone.
Paltrow, with bright red lips and skin that’s almost as blond as her hair, seems color coordinated to the film’s mood of commodified malice. After the murder attempt goes horribly awry – the bloody encounter itself is scary in a garish, high-exploitation way – David Suchet, looking like the Middle Eastern ghost of Columbo, shows up as a hawkish New York detective. Eagerly, we sit back to watch Taylor try and sleaze out of his actions. But the police investigation is merely a sideshow. Shaw the starving artist turns out to be a bigger manipulator than we thought, and the film becomes a game of competing male creeps, with Paltrow doing her best to enact the agony of a stalked trophy wife. The story, in its rather convoluted way, keeps you guessing, but there’s something reductive and dispiriting about the way A Perfect Murder tramples the goodness of everyone on screen. In the second half, the characters keep trying to scam, or kill, one another, and we realize that we’re not really rooting for anyone. I’m not sure Viggo Mortensen could ever be someone to root for. He seems a little too in love with his own cheekbones.
Hitchcock could stage this sort of material with silvery finesse, in part because the restrictions of the era forced suggestiveness upon filmmakers. Now, with everything out in the open, the sheer brutality of the conniving overwhelms any sense of mystery or crushed romanticism. I’ve seen far worse thrillers than A Perfect Murder, but the movie is ultimately more competent than pleasurable. All that lingers from it is the color of money. B-
A Perfect Murder STARRING Michael Douglas Gwyneth Paltrow Viggo Mortensen RATED R 107 MINUTES