`Catwoman' not much to meow about

July 23, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It shouldn't be about the costume.

Lord knows the wardrobe is not the only thing wrong with Catwoman, a film so thunderously wrongheaded in just about everything it does, it's hard to know where to start.

But really, when was the last time you went to see a superhero movie, and the only thing you could talk about afterward was the costume? Not the action, not the villain, not the issue of good vs. evil, not even the special effects or the comic-book dialogue, just the skimpy, revealing costume.

Five years from now, when this film has been firmly relegated to the dust heap and director Pitof's fame has been restricted to the short list of directors whose first names somehow got lost in transit (joining McG of Charlie's Angels), Halle Berry and her Catwoman costume will have won a secure place in the camp hall of fame. Wow.

Catwoman is a mess, there's really no other way to describe it. Its premise, which has little if anything to do with the comic-book Catwoman who afflicted Batman for so many years, is silly even by pop-culture standards. Its action, primarily a catfight (sorry, there's no other word) between Berry and Sharon Stone, as a cosmetics company executive with a face of marble, is ludicrously over-choreographed. And its stars, actors who will certainly do much better their next time out, seem either embarrassed or embittered by the whole thing.

Berry is Patience Philips (apparently the comic-book Catwoman's alias, Selina Kyle, was just too 20th-century passe for this film), a meek, mild-mannered wallflower of a graphics designer for a hotshot cosmetics firm who's having a bit of a bad day. She's about to be fired by her pit-viper of a boss (Lambert Wilson, his face pinched in a perennial snarl), who hates the ad campaign she's come up with for the company's new product, an anti-aging cream sure to be a major moneymaker.

Patience dutifully redoes her designs, but then even greater misfortune befalls her. While delivering them, she overhears a conversation in which it's revealed the face cream has horrible side effects that would definitely not pass muster with the FDA. This is not a secret her boss wants revealed, of course, so Patience must be eliminated - a nasty turn involving her bad idea of hiding in sewage pipes.

But then a rare Egyptian cat, a mau, comes and breathes on her. Thus is Patience brought back to life, with a pronounced feline streak to her personality.

If nothing else, Catwoman should make cat fanciers appreciate their pets even more. The transformed Patience is an outsized personality, independent, aloof, fearless (my cat hides under a chair whenever someone's in the room, but never mind). No longer the drab, passive Patience of old (a transformation the film highlights by shortening Berry's hair), she's a force of nature, assertive, sexy, ready for anything. She plays a mean game of hoops. And she's out for revenge.

Catwoman thinks of itself as a parable of feminine empowerment; turns out that mysterious mau (named Midnight) has made a career of imbuing selected women over the centuries with the ability to throw off their society-imposed shackles and get in touch with their inner beasts. But is showing off your body and ignoring every social norm in favor of doing whatever you please - essentially the power Midnight bestows on her lucky human lady friends - really empowerment? Or just hedonism?

Director Pitof, a veteran of French commercials and movie trailers who cut his teeth as a second-unit director on Alien: Resurrection (not a good sign), shoots Catwoman as though what he really aspires to do is a photo shoot for Vogue: lots of beautiful faces in extreme close-up, beautifully lit, absolutely trendy but without anything of substance behind them. His direction is all veneer and flash, dazzling but empty.

Berry at least seems to be with the program. She alone provides the film its occasional bright spot, as when she discovers a newfound appreciation for catnip or balances herself precariously on the edge of a chair. Barely along for the ride are Stone, as an aging, embittered beauty queen, and Benjamin Bratt as the detective who becomes Patience's love interest.

Maybe if Catwoman didn't take itself so seriously, the filmmakers might have been onto something. Unfortunately, this is a movie put together by people who think they can change the world by putting Halle Berry in a leather dominatrix costume with big ears. It doesn't work as high art, and it's too ponderous to be truly high camp. As a fashion shoot for the pin-up crowd, however, it's the cat's meow.

Catwoman

Starring Halle Berry, Sharon Stone

Directed by Pitof

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13 (action violence and some sensuality)

Time 110 minutes

Sun Score * 1/2

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