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Catwoman   D+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Pitof
Writers: John Brancato, Michael Ferris, John Rogers, Theresa Rebeck
Cast: Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, Lambert Wilson, Frances Conroy, Sharon Stone, Alex Borstein, Michael Massee, Byron Mann.

Review by Rob Vaux

Catwoman is a pretty bad movie -- try to contain your surprise -- and yet, it's a listless sort of bad that defeats any efforts to really enjoy its badness. The project had the smell of an instant camp classic, a "so bad it's good" comic-book train wreck unseen since the days of Howard the Duck. You could sense the midnight showings, the queer theory term papers, the drunken "you gotta see this" exultations at the video store. But it's not quite that bad... which is an ironic pity. Had it been worse, we really could have indulged ourselves. As it is, we have something sad, lifeless, and a little depressing: less a celebration of trash than a decade-old concept shuddering to an unremarkable halt.

As fans are aware, this version of Catwoman has nothing to do with the comic-book figure of the same name. Batman creator Bob Kane is cited in the credits, but there's no trace of the oh-so-naughty Selina Kyle who flummoxed her Dark Knight paramour so wonderfully for so many years. And yet they couldn't quite let that version of the character go, which is the film's first big problem. There's a feeble attempt to make this new Catwoman walk the same line between good and evil -- a master thief who still has enough morals to bring down the real bad guys -- but it's crammed awkwardly into a plot that clearly has no room for it. The title character, played by Halle Berry, follows the exact same arc as Michelle Pfeiffer did in Batman Returns: mousy employee, murdered by her boss, is reincarnated as an "I am woman, hear me yowl" ass-kicker and wreaks a vicious, hairball-laden revenge on her tormentors. Pfeiffer's performance was such a scene-stealer that it kept this project alive for over 12 years, but after all that time, they couldn't think of a more original approach to the character. All they did was strip away the surface details -- cutting out every reference to the Batman mythos and leaving the generic remainder in place -- thus guaranteeing that their most enthusiastic audience (the fanboys and girls) would despise it from the get-go.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with straying from the character's roots... provided you take it in an interesting direction. But Catwoman delivers a ho-hum scenario involving toxic beauty cream designed by Berry's evil ex-employers, and a handsome cop (Benjamin Bratt) hot on Catwoman's trail. It settles unevenly around the retread origin story, a jumble of predictable pieces thrown together with unseemly carelessness. Add to that a colorless, washed-out look (aiming for Tim Burton Gothic but running out of crayons somewhere in the middle) and spastic directing from the singly-named Pitof, and Catwoman emerges as a half-baked mess. The action scenes are incoherent, the character development appallingly sub-par, and the villains (Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone) struggle mightily to escape terminal somnambulism. It's as if the filmmakers understood storytelling as a philosophical concept rather than a practical skill. The right elements are in place because the screenwriting manual says they're supposed to be there, not because of any interior logic or cause-effect consistency.

Berry herself does what she can, delivering an amusing assortment of feline mannerisms and mixing in various elements from earlier versions of the character: Pfeiffer's ferocity, Julie Newmar's playfulness, Eartha Kitt's throaty purr. But there simply isn't much for her to work with here; she labors to unify the dual halves of her character, her costars generate little chemistry with her, and the script is so bad that it's all she can do just to maintain a straight face. She's forced to deliver one-liners that would make Adam West cringe, and while she's at home with Catwoman's sensual body language, the dreadful visual effects transform her confident strut into a herky-jerky clunk. This sort of misplay can doom careers, and it's all the more frustrating to realize that she actually might have pulled it off had the production been reasonably on the ball.

Of course, Catwoman does sport a few moments of pure, wonderful kitsch. The sight of Berry snorting catnip or wielding a bartender's spigot like a bullwhip is enough to inspire howls of laughter; a film full of such moments would have engendered a special place in the right kind of heart. But Catwoman steers away from such a course, taking itself just seriously enough to turn a potential Golden Turkey into another forgotten flop. Its lengthy period in development has left it creatively fatigued, too tired and exhausted to embrace the abyss as it should have. A good film may have been too much to ask, but there was a bizarre form of immortality within this one's reach. Even in that sense, Catwoman is a failure: not beautifully bad so much as just plain terrible.

Review published 07.26.2004.

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