What is it about the internet that drove mid-‘90s filmmakers insane with terror? Back then, Hollywood was positive these newfangled computer machines would result in a generation of hairy-palmed morlocks, baffled by social mores and existing entirely on greasy chain pizza and novelty soft drinks. By the aughts, the computer and its attendant series of tubes had become such a part of everyday life that the fear is gone and… wait, Perfect Stranger came out in 2007? Forget it, I have no fucking clue what these idiots were thinking.
Tagline: How Far Would You Go To Keep a Secret?
More Accurate Tagline: How Long Can You Stay Awake Watching People Chat Online?
Guilty Party: This is a tough one, since Perfect Stranger is exactly the kind of star-studded crap that gets greenlit regardless of how tired the concept or even if the screenplay is indifferently scrawled on a men’s room wall in feces. The fact of the matter is, Bruce Willis and Halle Berry agreed to be in this movie for a paycheck, so I should probably blame their desire for a swimming pool.
Synopsis: The opening credit sequence is so bizarre, I couldn’t even figure out what they were trying to show. It looked like Azathoth attempting to have sex with the atmosphere processing station on LV-426. Eventually, the director comes out of whatever psychotic break he was wrestling to actually make the movie, and I instantly wish he was back in it. No, instead we have the adventures of intrepid reporter Rowena Price (Halle Berry), writing under the name David Shane (subtle commentary on sexism, or homage to Fletch? Who knows? Who cares?). She initially goes after a homophobic and closeted gay senator, only to find her hatchet job blocked at the eleventh hour.
Ro (as she’s known, and yes, I added “Ensign” to her name every time) quits in a huff, only to be stalked to the subway by a blonde woman. This turns out to be childhood friend Grace (Nicki Aycox, most famous to me as evil pixie Meg on Supernatural) who has another story for Ro. Grace was having an affair with an advertising executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), when Hill suddenly broke it off and now Grace wants payback. The relationship between Ro and Grace is strained, and later we find out that Grace banged Ro’s last boyfriend. Anyway, Ro’s interested in the story, but not too interested.
Until Grace turns up dead! And like, super, duper dead. Poisoned then dumped in the river. Now convinced that Hill killed Grace, Ro decides she’s going to bring him down. With the assistance of her computer-savvy pal Miles (a supremely twitchy Giovanni Ribisi), she gets a job at Hill’s agency to investigate. Meanwhile, she catfishes Hill (while he uses his alias ADEX), trying to get him to drop some valuable hints during sexy chat time. And yes, this leads to multiple scenes of characters in front of computers typing words and whispering along. Its riveting. By which I mean you would need to rivet my eyes open like the fucking Ludovico Technique to get me to watch this again.
Ro hooks up with her ex that Grace banged, and while they’re playing Hide the Bishop (that’s a thing, right?), Miles lurks in the apartment listening. So… yeah. The autopsy brings two pertinent pieces of information to light: 1) Grace was pregnant and 2) the poison used was belladonna. Unfortunately, all this snooping gets Hill to believe Ro is a corporate spy, so he fires her. Then he goes out with her, because his dick is stupid. Then at the date, Miles sends an incriminating text which Hill intercepts, and it’s back to the corporate espionage angle. Yes, the big, exciting scene involved characters reading texts.
Oh yeah… there have been two flashbacks, one in the beginning, and one here near the end. Basically, they’re of a guy telling her it’s bathtime, and not in a friendly, fatherly sort of way. It’s gross and it’s only barely important.
Miles invites Ro over for dinner, then for no good reason goes to Hill’s office to get at his computer. He couldn’t have done this earlier? He does make one big discovery, which is that Mrs. Hill has a series of photographs of dilated eyes, and belladonna in small doses is used to dilate eyes. So Hill had access to the poison! Wow.
Ro heads into Miles’s place, and he should have been there. He has a super gross Hollywood bachelor pad, including an analog porn stash on his toilet tank, and sorry, no. The whole point of this guy is that he’s comfortable with computers, and if there’s one thing computers are good at, it’s providing free pictures of naked people. Anyway, Ro keeps snooping, and finds a terrifying mannequin thing with her face on it, an animated gif on his computer of her in a bikini (the Swordfish one, delighting fans of shitty Halle Berry films) that just repeats in her voice “Miles is sexy,” and on that same computer a ton of shots of Miles and Grace re-enacting over half of Fifty Shades of Grey. Also, Miles is both ADEX, and Trublu, another chat pal that’s been pestering Ro. He comes home, they have a fight, but he does manage to tell her about the poison.
With all the evidence, the cops arrest Hill and he’s convicted. Halle Berry delivers this long babbling voiceover about the evils of computers, and I’m hoping she’ll be done soon so I can experience joy once again. But oh no, there’s one more twist. A pair of hands retrieve belladonna from a hiding place and it’s Ro. Yep, she killed Grace. And then just suddenly Miles is there, being like, Grace was blackmailing you! Uh… okay. Remember the molesting dad? Well, Ro’s mom beat him to death and they buried him in the yard. Grace saw it, so she had that over Ro’s head, which is why she had to be killed. Miles then figures out that Ro knew about the dilated eyes, because of the virtual tour — her computer auto-completed the URL. Yes, it’s as boring as it sounds. So she stabs him to death when he attempts to blackmail her for sex. And guess what? Her neighbor saw the whole thing.
Life-Changing Subtext: Computers will inevitably turn you into a sociopath. That’s not really subtext, though. She says it straight out in the final narration.
Defining Quote: This is on the IMDB quotes page and it’s too funny not to share.
Harrison Hill: Do you have any idea what loyalty is?
Ro: I bet your wife is wondering the same thing!
Harrison Hill: BAAAAAAAAAAAH!
The great thing is you can imagine that “BAAAAAAAAAAAH!” as angry, happy, or that fake laugh people use when they want to acknowledge a joke but not actually get any pleasure out of it.
Standout Performance: One of my favorite character actors, Richard Portnow, plays the improbably named Narron, Ro’s editor. He also played the coroner in Se7en, who delivered that incredible line with just the right amount of weariness and contempt: “He’s experienced about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take, and he still has Hell to look forward to.” He doesn’t have much to do here, but I could listen to his raspy radio baritone read a description of a blocked colon.
What’s Wrong: It’s a cyber-panic flick made in 2007. It’s an erotic thriller without a single sex scene. It’s nearly two hours of people staring at email.
Flash of Competence: The final reveal is pretty good, even if the voiceover is dumb. Apparently, they three different endings with three different characters as the killer. That’s got to contribute to the directionless feeling of the middle hour and twenty minutes or so.
Best Scenes: What is up with Bruce Willis and terrible erotic thrillers? It’s possible he learned his lesson last time and refused to show his dick, but come on. The whole point of these movies are the sex scenes. A-list starts stripping down and doing a little grinding. Bruce Willis looks like he’s going to get busy in one scene, but he falls behind a curtain and that’s it. Maybe I should be grateful that I wasn’t traumatized this time?
A lot of hay was made of the pervasive product placement in Man of Steel, but this was worse. For one thing, Ro can’t sit down without fetching a frosty Heineken from her fridge. And in another scene, a line of Heinekens are just sitting on a conference table. Mmm… warm beer. Everyone’s favorite! There’s even a commercial for Victoria’s Secret in the middle, but in true Perfect Stranger form, none of the models are actually in lingerie.
Transcendent Moment: Just before the final reveal, Ro goes on a long voiceover rant about the evils of computers. She sounds like an Amish person haranguing a door-to-door salesman they have trussed up in a barn.
“It’s a world where you think actions have no consequence, where guilt is cloaked by anonymity, where there are no fingerprints. An invisible universe filled with strangers, interconnected online and disconnected in life. It will steal your secrets, corrupt your dreams, and co-opt your identity. Because in this world, where you can be anything you want, anyone you want, you just might lose sight of who you are.”
I’ve found that it’s a good idea just to agree with Josiah or he’ll churn your ass to butter. And for those keeping track at home, yes, Ro is blaming her murder of two people on her computer.
Perfect Stranger’s biggest sin, ultimately, is being boring. It promises cheap titillation and fails even in that modest goal, so all we’re left with is 109 minutes of nothing. If you need to see Bruce Willis awkwardly groping on someone, watch Color of Night instead.