'Enemy': typical damsel in distress

February 08, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

There's nothing particularly bad about "Sleeping With the Enemy" but there's nothing particularly good about it either; in fact, there's almost nothing particular about it.

This is disappointing, not merely because it throws away the luminous Julia Roberts in a strictly routine woman-in-jeopardy number, but because the movie's director, Joseph Ruben, previously has done such excellent work in bringing incisiveness and personality to popular materials.

Ruben broke through with his Father's Day card from hell, "The Stepfather," and he consolidated with the eccentric, compelling "True Believer." But in "Sleeping With the Enemy" his work is the big doze, a skimpy, mechanistic manipulation of gooses and shocks to the system that seems over before it ever starts.

Roberts plays the wife of a sleek Boston investment banker. To the world she has it all: glorious summer home on Cape Cod, exquisite beauty, an acre or so of lips, wealth. To herself she has nothing: She is not merely abused but abased. The banker, played in the movie's best performance by Patrick Bergin, is an elegant, silky sadist and control freak, for whom jealousy isn't so much an emotion as a condition.

Bergin, notably charismatic in "Mountains of the Moon," is terrific. What's so scary about his performance is its icy control and sense of rectitude. He has no doubts, no irony; the logic that holds him in thrall is absolute. To this man, it makes no difference whether the towels are lined up incorrectly or his wife has looked at another man: Both are flaws that require correction instantly, and he can make no distinction between them. (In this it repeats a theme from "The Stepfather," being a portrait of a tyrant whose most dangerous illusion is that he can completely control the world, and when, as it must, the world disappoints him, he goes ballistic.)

In her hell, Roberts finds society no help at all. Judicial restraint orders or police presence will not stop her husband from killing her, as well she knows. So she improvises a fairly transparent phony death, manages to flee and heads out to bucolic Iowa to start anew. But of course she makes a few mistakes, for no other reason that if she didn't, there wouldn't be a movie.

That's one reason that "Sleeping With the Enemy" begins to break down: the details haven't been well thought out, and the coincidences begin piling up in such a way that Bergin, with amazing ease, sees through the ruse and begins to stalk her again.

Meanwhile, in an Iowa that's so sentimentalized it could have come intact from a '30s Metro picture, she takes up with the first guy she meets, who happens to be her next door neighbor! He's a young drama professor (played by squirrelly Kevin Anderson) and all too quickly the two become an item.

In fact, not only is Iowa sentimentalized but so is the relationship, which is envisioned in childish terms, with the two dressing up and playing games in the theater department's costume department, eating dinners of pot roast and apple pie and strolling, thumb-locked, through verdant town squares. The movie has great fun playing cornball Iowa against the sleek and heartlessly modern house that Bergin had built; underneath, there seems to be a fable about the glories of the Midwest and the sleek but soulless harshness of the Northeast.

The endgame is thoroughly predictable, though not as extended as perhaps a lesser director would have indulged. It's the old darkened house gig, a night passage through shadow and light, full of red herrings, things that go bump in the night, guns that don't go off when they should, all of it standard and only surprising here in how swiftly and with what disinterest Ruben works his way through it.

"Sleeping With the Enemy" never, however, resonates as did "The Stepfather." It has no echoes, no implicit meanings. It's just about making money.

'Sleeping With the Enemy'

Starring Julia Roberts and Patrick Bergin.

Directed by Joseph Ruben.

Released by 20th Century Fox.

Rated R.

... **

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