Romancing the Stone


At one point in Basic Instinct 2, Sharon Stone’s castrating nympho-bitch is diagnosed as a “masked psychotic”—a sneaky acknowledgment, perhaps, that the real subject of this sadly anticlimactic sequel is not sexual warfare or the pleasure principle or the death drive but cosmetic surgery. It’s been 14 years since Stone’s Catherine Tramell sent the San Francisco police force into a horny tizzy. She returns, at 48, with a performance that lends new meaning to “Stone-faced.” If we accept the actress’s repeated claims that her glossy, creaseless visage is all-natural, then her work here constitutes an eerie tour de force of muscle control—a weirdly minimalist form of mugging. As she tries on one nominally come-hither look after another, the immobilized upper portion of her face has the unsettling effect of rendering her expressions doubly ambiguous, as if she’s wearing half a kabuki mask. (At this rate, Basic Instinct 3, due when Stone is 62, should be a Noh play.)

The original Basic Instinct was both a manifestation and a critique of sex panic, an effortless distillation of a late-’80s/early-’90s zeitgeist: the end of second-wave feminism, the peaking of AIDS anxieties, the dawn of the Clinton years. Stale and corny, BI2 isn’t even accidentally relevant. With a Brit journeyman (Michael Caton-Jones) subbing for Dutch libertine Paul Verhoeven (David Cronenberg was slated to direct at one point), there are only the faintest traces of the first movie’s lunatic oomph: The riotous opening could almost pass as a Camille Paglia recuperation of Eminem’s “Stan” video. Crazy Cathy speeds through the London night in her sports car (a Dutch Spyker, perhaps in homage to Verhoeven), fucking herself with the tongue-moistened finger of a semiconscious stud in the passenger seat; at the moment of orgasm, she soars off the road and into the Thames. (The black widow leaves her date to drown.) The final few scenes mount a belated, scorched-earth charge into Grand Guignol territory, but in between, it’s nearly two hours of yawnsome exposition and dopey psychoanalysis—Catherine doesn’t flash anyone, let alone the audience, but there are numerous shots of her squeakily writhing on her shrink’s leatherette chaise.

The first film rested on the unbeatably icky/iconic presence of über-’80s specimen Michael Douglas. Here David Morrissey’s psychiatrist, a pasty patsy of a leading man, is no match for Stone. As in the original, Catherine’s mind-warping hotness supposedly inspires men to new heights of animalistic bedroom technique (eyeing her dust jacket photo, prominently propped on his nightstand, Morrissey’s character proceeds to—ooh—take his girlfriend from behind!). But the few sex scenes (all hetero) are sub-softcore and pretty much kink-free, unless you count a sweetly affectionate instance of garrote play.

The screenplay, by Leora Barish and The Believer‘s Henry Bean, never approaches the brutish tackiness of Joe Eszterhas’s blueprint. In fact, the dutiful dirty talk (“Would you like to come in my mouth?”) is a lot less funny than the random high-toned name-drops (“How Lacanian,” Charlotte Rampling’s senior psychoanalyst murmurs, apropos of not very much). Additionally, Stone’s costumes are tame—little black backless numbers and strappy stilettos—and she doesn’t even have cool props. Divested of her ice pick, Catherine is reduced to touristy kitsch, fondling lighters in the shapes of London’s phallic landmarks.

Not content simply to examine the relationship between sex and death, BI2 ponderously blurs the boundaries between art and life, and the plot, already mired in nonsensical backstory, collapses with the late-inning introduction of a tired metafictional device (not to mention a wildly lunging Usual Suspects twist). The intriguing final shot—in which one of the characters struggles in vain to stifle a smile—clues us in to the movie Caton-Jones might have hoped he was making. But for most of Basic Instinct 2, as Stone decisively demonstrates, it’s all too easy to keep a straight face.

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