Did you know that people in Internet chat rooms are not always who they say they are? Really, it’s true! I learned this in Perfect Stranger, a crappy thriller gussied up with a chrome-plated veneer. Halle Berry, whose million-dollar body is on proud display in a slinky on-the-job wardrobe, plays an ace investigative journalist named Rowena who discovers the addictive virtual reality of instant messaging a mere decade behind the rest of us. Thanks to Rowena, I also learned that the reason more tabloid dirt-diggers like the one played by Berry don’t expose the misconduct of, say, homophobic, secretly gay United States senators is that a good-old-boy network of men in government and media collude to squash the truth. Plus, I learned that Victoria’s Secret is launching a new line of cleavage-enhancing bras called Very Sexy. I confirmed this last fact on the Internet, so it has to be true. Victoria’s Secret’s website, however, mentions nothing about an ad campaign conceived by a fictional agency headed by someone played by Bruce Willis. So now I don’t know what to believe!
Except this: Perfect Stranger has been conceived by people motivated entirely by product placement, whether that product is celebrity casting, consumer goods (Victoria’s Secret bras, Vaio computers, Heineken beer, Reebok shoes, NYC’s stylish Hotel Gansevoort), or button-pushing plot elements (Senate scandal, repressed memories of a molesting daddy, stalker tendencies of lovelorn computer geeks). This slack, overworked entertainment, directed in spasms of artistic anxiety by James Foley (At Close Range), is a rote compendium of Internet paranoia clichés, with frequent pauses to admire Berry’s derriere, décolletage, and related assets. Less admirable are Willis’ generic moves as an ad mogul — with a face seemingly mobile only from the nose down — still capable of bagging every beautiful woman on the payroll. (Lothario’s tip: Take her to the stylish Hotel Gansevoort!)
Next on his hit list? Ro herself. Recently she nailed an exposé of a slimy senator for her tabloid, the fictional New York Courier, with the assistance of her adoring computer-whiz colleague Miles (Giovanni Ribisi). But the story’s just been killed by spineless higher-ups, so she indignantly quits the paper, although not before delivering a speech of outrage that is about as much acting as Berry can handle, so busy is she being corseted and lit to perfection. (The exposé on how the working girl affords her big-bucks frocks, let alone her rambling, expensively furnished apartment in Manhattan’s historic Ansonia apartment building, where Babe Ruth and Igor Stravinsky once lived, has yet to be written.)
But the instinct for nosing around dies hard with a vengeance. A childhood friend (Cold Case’s Nicki Aycox, telegraphing trouble with crazy-girl eyes) comes to Rowena with a sad tale about a creep she met online, someone who treated her badly — the selfsame powerful advertising mogul, Harrison Hill (Willis). Soon enough, the girl with crazy eyes turns up dead. Murdered. And Ro gets busy busting another slimy man (there’s no male who isn’t guilty in the movie’s femme-affronted universe) by typing prettily in chat rooms to lure her prey; for nonreaders, she also speaks as she types. As she explains in the rudimentary script by TV writer Todd Komarnicki, ”All it takes to commit a murder are the right ingredients at the right time.” Doesn’t that flavorless recipe apply equally well to committing a soufflé?
Inevitably, the new project demands new duds, and not one but two new identities. The sleuth gets herself hired as a temp worker called Katherine at Hill’s agency, a hothouse of assistant babes and slimy male execs. And, with the help of Miles the lovelorn tech buddy, she establishes a flirtatious online correspondence with the boss as Veronica. (We know Miles hides his own secrets because Ribisi, typecast playing guys who obsess too much or sleep too little, is lit to highlight creepy under-eye shadows, and his own apartment appears to be part fluorescent art installation, part homage to The Silence of the Lambs.)
Inevitably, nobody is who he or she appears to be, least of all Ro. Flashbacks to her childhood don’t just hint at withheld information, they shake us by the shoulders and go ”boo.” Perfect Stranger is spam — not only commercially generated, but irritating in the faith that buyers will be as dumb about Internet-based thrillers as the sellers are. My advice is to delete without opening.