Dir. James Foley
Premiered April 10, 2007
If any film of 2007 deserves the descriptor “stillborn,” it is James Foley’s Perfect Stranger. A thriller thrice over– corporate, erotic, and technological– Perfect Stranger reflects an understanding of both genre and modern existence that belongs in a film from no later than 1995. Today, it would be another cheapo September release from Screen Gems starring Morris Chestnut and/or Regina Hall; in 2007, it cost $60 million, starred two of Hollywood’s biggest names at the time, and was utterly convinced of its own importance.
Halle Berry stars as Rowena Price, a passionate journalist at a New York tabloid who teams up with overlooked researcher Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) to write cracking investigative pieces under a pseudonym. Their first mission, as depicted in the film, is to expose ruthlessly homophobic Republican Senator David Sachs (Gordon MacDonald) as both a closeted gay man and a serial harasser of his male interns.
Now, when I say “ruthlessly homophobic Republican Senator,” is your first image that of a fortysomething New York Jew? To anyone even casually familiar with the partisan politics of the time, that would probably be the last person they’d expect. Perfect Stranger, however, doesn’t know well enough to get the details right. And though this opening sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, it is fairly representative of its approach to all aspects of life in 2007 America.
After the newspaper shuts down Ro’s investigation, she’s approached by Grace (Nicki Aycox), a childhood friend with the clothes and hairstyle of a male Japanese soap star who gives every indication of being the villain– cornering Ro in a subway station, grinning ominously, and rambling about her sexual affair with famous ad executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). Despite all appearances, Grace is not the villain. In fact, her (incredibly light, bouncy, rubbery) corpse appears in the very next scene. Immediately expressing a suspicion that Hill murdered Grace, Ro goes undercover in Hill’s company while Miles hacks into Grace’s email so the two of them can catfish him.
This is where the viewer starts to realize that there will not be a coherent plot. While working at the agency (and partaking in embarrassingly craven product placement), Ro discovers that Hill is unable to leave his wife because all of his money comes from her, leading him to seek clandestine affairs. Not only does this not make sense– whether he started the company with his wife’s money or not, he owns and operates his own wildly successful business now– it’s padded out by an hour’s worth of tedious digressions into office politics and corporate intrigue that don’t even pretend to matter. Long after numbing you into apathy, Perfect Stranger culminates in a bizarre, tenuous twist that misunderstands the very concept of suspense.
Perfect Stranger’s idea of being a “technological thriller” is to marvel at such wonders as laptops, email accounts, instant messaging, and online advertising. Hell, chat rooms– an artifact of the ‘90s if there ever was one– are the key to the investigation, and when it comes to depicting them, director James Foley goes for overkill: the camera lingers on pieces of chat dialogue, and we are forced to sit impatiently as one or multiple characters repeat aloud what was just onscreen.
No less curious is the movie’s concept of eroticism. Frontal nudity is nonexistent, unless you count a brief glimpse of some random online thumbnails, or an unconvincing confirmation that Grace’s gelatinous corpse is a natural blonde. Late in the film, Miles is revealed to be sexually obsessed with Ro, yet Ro is the one always showering him with inappropriate, unreciprocated affection.
I have never seen Halle Berry give a worse performance. Crying on command is not the same as emoting, nor is making your voice quiver like you’re in a high school production of Hair while making vague impassioned speeches. Most of the minor players can emote, but everyone, Berry included, races through the dialogue without pausing as if being paid by the minute. Giovanni Ribisi breaks from his usual overtly slimy persona to do his best Sam Rockwell impression, and while that’s an odd decision in light of his character’s actions, he is the only player capable of occasionally convincing the audience that he’s human. As for Bruce Willis, I keep wanting to say that he’s barely in the movie, but it only feels that way; Hill is a man-shaped MacGuffin, and Willis only plays him so Universal can put his name on the poster.
Everything I’ve read about Perfect Stranger screams “troubled production.” It was originally intended for release in June 2006, but hadn’t even finished filming by then. The political aside at the film’s start was almost certainly inspired by the Mark Foley scandal that broke in October of that year, implying a ton of re-shoots within just months of the eventual release date– if Berry’s uncommonly bad wig in the first eight minutes wasn’t proof enough.
The marketing was even more misguided. The erotic thriller was long dead; people were still tired of ill-fated attempts by the lower ranks of Hollywood to simultaneously titillate and outage; yet the meager “erotic” nature of the film received the most emphasis in ads. Meanwhile, the title Perfect Stranger only conjured up memories of a deliriously cheesy TGIF sitcom from the 1980s. Most bizarrely, the film was subject to an early attempt at viral marketing when Sony had the actors write blogs in character. This practice, now known inexplicably as an Alternate Reality Game, was popularized by the TV series Lost, but Lost was already popular when they started doing that, and it’s an especially rich marketing choice for a movie that treats the internet as a mysterious novelty. Even BoxOfficeMojo, a reference publication, couldn’t help but judge its “convoluted and contrived promotional presentation.”
Perfect Stranger may not be exceptionally atrocious, incompetent, or offensive, but it is astonishing in its wrongheadedness: every creative decision was the the one least likely to result in an enjoyable or profitable film.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Perfect Stranger seems to have been written and produced in a matter of months, which is not a good sign unless the director’s name is Clint Eastwood. Hill’s company is headquartered in the newly rebuilt 7 World Trade Center, which had opened less than a year earlier. Hurricane Katrina is namedropped, as are Hotmail and AOL. Heidi Klum cameos as herself. “Nausea” by Beck plays in the background at a bar scene.
How Did It Do?
Perfect Stranger’s fate was exactly what you’d expect: it grossed $73.1 million, mostly from outside the United States, failing to recoup marketing expenses on top of its bloated $60 million budget. Earning an 11% rating on RottenTomatoes, critics overwhelmingly bashed it as tedious and random. James Foley, who once wowed critics and audiences with his 1990 adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, didn’t work again until 2017, when he was hired to direct Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Which, yeah, of course.
Next Time: In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale