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Basic Instinct 2   D-

MGM Pictures / Intermedia Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Writers: Leora Barish, Henry Bean
Cast: Sharon Stone, David Morrissey, Charlotte Rampling, David Thewlis, Hugh Dancy, Indira Varma.

Review by Rob Vaux

"There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you're trying to be twenty-five."
--Joe Gillis (William Holden), Sunset Blvd.

I used to know a guy who suffered from clinical narcissism. As in a formally diagnosed personality disorder. His self-esteem was so hopelessly crippled that he relied on attention from others in order to validate his identity. And he didn't differentiate between good attention and bad; he would do whatever it took -- compulsively, desperately, heedless of any damage to himself or those around him -- to get people to look his way. At first his behavior was exciting. Then for a long time, it was infuriating. Now it's just sad.

That arc could aptly describe the career of Sharon Stone, which comes to a flaming, debris-strewn end this weekend right at the place where it started. Basic Instinct 2 would be a magnificent exercise in transcendental camp (it's certainly the funniest movie of the year) were it not for the pleading, deluded look behind its leading lady's ice-blue eyes. The expiration date on her stardom was up some time ago, but she's still not ready to go, and the sheer pathos of her situation takes all the fun out of what should have been a laugh riot.

Before I proceed, I should clarify a few thoughts on older women and sexuality. It's admirable, in some ways, that an actress of Stone's age should assert herself physically as she does here. Our culture's monstrous obsession with youth and callous dismissal of any performer who doesn't fit the narrowly defined criteria of attractiveness are in serious need of a shake-up. We need to see the beauty of a 50-year-old in a way that celebrates what people actually look like at age 50 -- the sags, the bulges, the droops, everything. We need to revel in the grace and poise that experience brings, to lionize forty- and fiftysomethings as alternate -- but no less glorious -- examples of human splendor. It's been done before: Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give, for example, or (more puckishly) Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. But that's not what Stone's doing here. Her performance doesn't say, "I'm forty-eight and I'm hot." It says, "I'm hot because I don't look forty-eight," which, of course, only shames her age by trying to hide it. She slinks around in filmy tops supporting surgically modified nipples, her copious makeup holding back the cracks like a Dutchman with his finger in the dike. She cranks up her streetwalker strut as if the landscape it's revealing weren't held together by chicken wire and prayer. The screenplay by Leora Barish and Henry Bean provides a plethora of opportunities to play the seductive manipulator -- as befits a reprise of her signature character, Catherine Tramell -- but none of it flies for even the briefest moment. It's hard to sell "deceptive" when the only one you're deceiving is yourself.

Not that the rest of the movie does much to help. It's a rehash of the original scenario, with a series of murders surrounding novelist Tramell and the lingering question of whether or not she's behind them. The setting has moved to London and the hapless dupe drawn into her web is now psychologist Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey), but otherwise, it's pretty much straight regurgitation. It lacks the sculpted frosting of director Paul Verhoeven, however, as well as the over-the-top misanthropy of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, both of which turned the first Basic Instinct from a total pile of crap into the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. New helmsman Michael Caton-Jones can't match their perfect tone of earnest cheese, reducing the "erotic atmosphere" to the level of grade-school toilet humor. Glass works atop the most phallic building in England, while the sexual connotations of the miserable dialogue are delivered with the solemnity of holy scripture. David Thewlis' dogged police inspector constantly looks like he's about to recite Monty Python's "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" speech, which, considering the glut of would-be naughtiness on display, would be quite appropriate. When all else fails, Caton-Jones throws some writhing bodies at us, which lacks either the transgressive joy or the sinister suspense that the scenario is supposed to achieve.

For those of the right mindset, of course, Basic Instinct 2 could be a colossal hoot. Movies this bad should be savored like a fine wine; its combination of pomposity and incompetence can scarcely be matched, making for a wonderful evening of margarita-fueled snarking if you're so inclined. Indeed, the central question here is not whether Glass can escape Tramell's sinister mind games, but whether the filmmakers deliberately set out to make us laugh so hard. One certainly hopes so -- and I suspect at least a handful of cast and crew were in on the joke -- but that doesn't change the fact that we're laughing at them, not with them. And even then, there's the depressing spectacle of Stone, screaming "Pay attention to me!" like a petulant six-year-old being ignored by her elders. The trick worked once before, with a beaver shot that launched a 14-year A-list career. But she's had ample time to show us something -- anything -- else, and as Basic Instinct 2 amply proves, that's really all she's got. It's not funny, it's not sexy, it's not even interesting. It's just pathetic. As another April Fools Day approaches, the joke is clearly on her. Sadly, I think it always was.

Review published 03.30.2006.

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