Cinema’s assault on the middle class continues with Cleopatra’s Second Husband, an engagingly grim psychological thriller from 1998. Unlike its Hollywood kin, however, this scene from the class gurgle has the courage of its convictions—which are misanthropic enough to make Neil LaBute wince.
Treading in early Polanski territory, Cleopatra charts the disruptive influence of a pair of freewheeling intruders on the lives of a bored L.A. couple. Shy photographer Robert Marrs (Paul Hipp, who has something of Kid in the Hall Kevin McDonald’s deadpan charm) and his shrill missus, Hallie (Bitty Schram), leave their house in the care of sexy friends-of-friends Zach and Sophie (Boyd Kestner and Radha Mitchell) while on vacation. The house sitters stay on after the Marrses return home and use Robert to his full doormat potential, eventually causing Hallie to split. Zach then catches Sophie in bed with Robert and possibly rapes him as payback. She leaves and the two men set up house, with Zach dominating Robert into a crippling depression, but he ultimately rebounds from his funk to exact an excruciatingly prolonged revenge.
Cleopatra’s Second Husband doesn’t go much deeper than American Beauty‘s lesson that angst and repression make unimpressive suburban men irresistible to hot young blonds and homicidal psychopaths alike. But unlike that odious specimen of yuppie self-loathing, it neither telegraphs its plot twists nor lets its protagonist off the hook. Robert’s masochistic passivity becomes at least as pathological and threatening as Zach’s casual sadism. Reiss maintains a wry tone up to the queasy finale, and while his unflinching view of human relationships may be insupportable, his understated style and wit have kinky rewards all their own.