Leigh strings subtly discordant notes into melody of psychic distress

August 14, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Single White Female" has much more going for it than the average woman-in-distress formula knockoff. It is more intelligent, its performances are more persuasive, its whole vision of a world is more compelling than any of the dozens of dreadful film that preceded it.

And that's why, in this case, more is less.

Barbet Schroeder has most recently directed the geekily chilling "Reversal of Fortune," which featured a chilly, almost reptilian performance from Jeremy Irons. Creepiness seems to be a Schroeder specialty, and in "Single White Female" he manages to pull another shudder-job out of murky little Jennifer Jason Leigh.

But Leigh and her equally convincing co-star Bridget Fonda are locked into such a rigid formula that they're unable to transcend, and the movie ultimately becomes another cut-em-up.

The formula is the now famous "----- from hell." After spouses from hell, nannies from hell, one-night-stands from hell, cops from hell, I think it's safe to say we've bottomed out: roommate from hell. What's next? What's even left? Tollbooth Attendant from Hell?

Fonda plays Allie Jones, a software consultant on Manhattan's fashionable West Side whose career is just beginning to perk, even as her private life is collapsing. One dreadful afternoon, she learns that her fiance (Steve Weber) has made love to his ex-wife, so she kicks him out and takes out an ad ("SWF seeks roommate . . .") to cut her expenses. After a number of grotesque applicants, she settles on mousy but earnest and supportive Hedy Carlson (Leigh).

The two get along famously, and for a bit the movie feels as if its a documentary on Upstairs at the Kappa House. But soon Hedy begins to display clammy symptoms of strangeness.

This is "Single White Female" at its eerie best. Leigh's performance is an accumulation of subtly discordant notes, a glissando of psychic distress that is just insistent enough to notice but just harmless enough to deny. She begins to buy clothes identical to Allie's. She has her hair cut and colored identically to Allie's. She begins to insinuate her way into Allie's life in small and disturbing ways, establishing a pattern that feels very much like usurpation: She's not so much trying to be like Allie as to be her. Makes your skin crawl.

Of course it turns out that there's a theory behind this behavior, involving a long-dead twin and a crushing burden of guilt, all of it trotted out rather perfunctorily, like Simon Oakland's "explanation" at the end of "Psycho." One imagines scriptwriter Don Roos hitting Control-Five on the Moviemaster screenwriting program, that keystroke combo engineered to yield "Unconvincing But Necessary Explanation." It's the film's second weakest element.

The weakest is murder. Once "Single White Female" moves onto the killing ground, it sacrifices its considerable accumulation of interest. We've seen everything in its last 10 minutes before except the guy who gets a high heel in the eye. So it gets an extra half a star for a gross new death. Other than that -- shooting, stabbing, beatings, dark creaky corridors, the empty glare of a psychopath -- it's the same old song, played faster.

'Single White Female'

Starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Released by Columbia.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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