The last time Catwoman was portrayed on screen, it was by Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Her performance was widely praised for its originality and magnetism; she made Catwoman hot. Since that time, Hollywood has been trying desperately to do a Catwoman spin-off movie. Pfeiffer was going to do it for a while, then Ashley Judd was committed. A few other actresses flirted with the idea, but it never happened. As a major fan of anything having to do with comic book characters (especially those that originated in the Batman universe), I was excited when the project finally got off the ground, with Halle Berry in the title role, no less. However, the wait was all for nothing. Catwoman is one of the worst comic book movies I’ve seen.
Berry stars as Patience Phillips, a mousy graphics designer for a major cosmetics company. Although she looks like Halle Berry, Patience is very quiet and has trouble getting a date. She has two extremely stereotypical co-worker/friends who fail to provide the intended comic relief. One is an obnoxious loudmouth (Alex Borstein) and the other is an effeminate guy, both of whom encourage her to find herself a nice “man sandwich.” The owner of the company is George Hedare (Lambert Wilson). His wife Laurel (Sharon Stone) has been the model in the company’s advertisements for years. But as they prepare to unleash a new face cream that reverses the effects of aging, Laurel is forced to step down in favor of a younger model (who happens to be carrying on an affair with her husband).
When last-minute testing reveals that the new face cream is actually toxic, Laurel makes a plan for the company to distribute it anyway so that profits won’t be lost. Patience, attempting to deliver some artwork, overhears the plan and is chased down by some of Laurel’s goons. She is killed in the process, but a mysterious cat arrives and somehow transforms her into Catwoman, complete with feline powers of jumping and scratching, as well as a newfound self-confidence. With her new identity (and barely-there leather costume), Catwoman sets out to stop Laurel from harming anyone with the faulty product. In retaliation, Laurel frames Catwoman for murdering some prominent Hedare executives. Adding a hitch is Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), the cop Patience just started dating who is also investigating these murders. Somehow, he never quite realizes that his girlfriend and his suspect are the same person.
If you think the whole idea of a superhero trying to stop an evil cosmetics tycoon is stupid, then join the club. This is only the first of many problems with Catwoman. Going hand-in-hand with the basic flimsiness of the plot is that neither the heroine nor the villain is adequately developed. In an origin story such as this one, a lot depends on the hero coming to terms with his/her new powers and then making a choice in how to use them. We never get such a moment in this film. Instead, there are way too many lame jokes in which Patience acts like a cat – devouring cans of tuna, freaking out when it rains, hissing at dogs. (Thank goodness they stopped short of having her lick herself or cough up a hairball.) The story needed to develop her recognition of her new identity, as well as the problems it creates in her normal life. Rather than exploring a mature relationship a la Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, the only complication for Patience is whether she’ll get another date with the cop.
Laurel Hedare fares even worse. I have a confession to make: I love Sharon Stone, even though she’s made a lot of bad pictures. I think she’s a great old-fashioned drama queen of an actress. Casting her as the bad guy could have been a masterstroke, especially since she hasn’t gone over to the dark side since her breakthrough performance in Basic Instinct. It’s not hard to imagine Stone chewing up the scenery as an evil maniac, but she’s never given the chance. Laurel is never menacing, never three-dimensional, and never believable. This movie needed a Green Goblin, a Doc Ock, a Joker! Someone who oozed danger. Stone’s up to the task but never gets an opportunity.
The biggest problem of all – and the one that made me feel so angry at the movie – was that it was poorly directed by the one-named Pitof, a former special effects supervisor. Comic book movies require a strong, consistent visual style that puts you into the character’s world. Hellboy had it. The X-Men movies had it. Tim Burton’s Batman movies had it in spades. That visual style is absolutely essential because it creates the backbone of the film. It allows for a heightened sense of reality where you can buy into the idea of costumed heroes and superpowers. It’s crucial for an audience to feel transported into an alternate universe, even if that universe has a basis in reality. For example, the Spider-Man films are set in New York, yet the visual style makes New York seem just a little bit more magical than the one we really know. That edge of fantasy draws us in to the story.
In contrast, Catwoman has no visual style whatsoever. Sure, there are special effects, but quite frankly, they’re terrible. And rather than creating a universe for Catwoman to inhabit, Pitof has made the movie look like a Revlon commercial or a music video, complete with a ridiculously inappropriate hip-hop soundtrack. There’s a pointless scene in which Patience and Tom play basketball that is so commercial-like that I expected to see a Gatorade logo pop onto the screen. There’s a similar scene of Catwoman shaking it on the dance floor of a nightclub, whip in hand. Even the obligatory sex scene feels like a TV ad. Throughout the film, Pitof uses lots of quick music-video style cutting and an annoying tendency to shoot extreme close-ups of the actors instead of allowing them to share screen space. A film like this should be visually unique; it should not co-opt the generic qualities shared by advertising and MTV videos. The complete absence of a distinct visual style robs Catwoman of its imagination and wonder. The picture looks and feels utterly flat, which is the kiss of death in this genre.
The only thing worth seeing here is Halle Berry in her Catwoman outfit (which, incidentally, it takes 55 minutes for her to put on). She looks the part, that’s for sure. She doubtlessly could have done a lot with it too, had she been given a good script and a director who understood the comic book style. Catwoman is put to shame by the other recent superhero movie, Spider-Man 2. Everything that made that film so spectacular is completely missing from this one. If it’s a feline hero you want this summer, Puss in Boots (from Shrek 2) is still your best bet.
( 1/2 out of four)
Catwoman is rated PG-13 for action/violence and some sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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