Meow Nix

Kitty litter: Armed with bullwhip and skimpy leather catsuit, Berry coughs up a hairball

Nothing captures the essence of summer-blockbuster desperation quite like a billboard featuring an Oscar-winning actress on all fours. Or maybe the provocative marketing blitz for Warner Bros.' Catwoman—an almost-but-not-quite spin-off of the studio's floundering Batman franchise—simply suggests a giga-budget gamble in peril: The film has undergone multiple uncredited rewrites, lost its original star (Nicole Kidman), garnered iffy preview scores, and had its release date pushed back more than once. With that kind of history, can a film possibly land on its feet?

Not this one, it turns out. Faithful neither to Batman creator Bob Kane's original femme fatale nor to any of the filmed incarnations thereof (including those essayed by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Michelle Pfeiffer), this plodding, by-the-numbers superhero flick has all the feline grace of a walleyed mastiff.

Foregoing Kane's Catwoman character, Selina Kyle, altogether, this simulacrum stars Halle Berry as a milquetoasty graphic designer for a cosmetics giant. Despite her chic wardrobe, tony urban digs, and Halle Berry good looks, the improbably named Patience Philips is lonely and repressed, and lets her boss and his ex-model wife (Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone) walk all over her. Things begin to look up when she meets a hunky cop (Benjamin Bratt) while trying to rescue a mysterious cat from a ledge, but then she stumbles upon a plot to foist toxic anti-aging cream onto an unsuspecting public and ends up being flushed into the unnamed city's version of the East River. A CGI-heavy resurrection via the aforementioned cat turns Patience into a bullwhip-wielding kung fu savant with a take-no-crap attitude and a taste for skimpy leather outfits, which in this movie's universe adds up to a vampy variety of female empowerment. The remainder of the film, in which Patience/Catwoman gets revenge on her "killers" and (sort of) learns the nature of her powers from a reclusive academic (Frances Conroy, given even less to do here than in this season of Six Feet Under), wavers between bombastically scored, vertigo-inducing fight scenes and lugubrious romantic drivel no self-respecting 11-year-old would countenance.

Berry's loose, goofy performance (the way she gobbles sushi and snorts catnip suggests that she's all but written off that second Oscar) is Catwoman's one memorable perk, but it's easily overshadowed by the movie's many deficits. The direction by Frenchman Pitof (Jean-Christophe Comar), the preferred visual-effects supervisor of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro who appears to have learned little from his mentors, is as anonymous as the man's expulsive-sounding uni-moniker, and the results squander both Thierry Arbogast's moody cinematography and some savvy script doctor's nod to Val Lewton's (or at least Paul Schrader's) Cat People. Its pop-feminist overtones are also surpassingly silly: A woman who's equal parts demure and hot-blooded is, as the all-guy screenwriting credits suggest, pure male fantasy.

But mostly the movie just bores, and has so little human interest at stake that it could predate Sam Raimi's heartfelt Spider-Man films, the heavy-handed frivolity of The Matrix, and even Tim Burton's noir-inspired Batman. Like the action movies of yore (you know, the 1980s), Catwoman is simultaneously overstuffed and undernourished.

 
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