As we inch along toward the dog days of August, it's time to wonder aloud if Hollywood has shot its seasonal wad, or if there's still some cinematic life left in the Summer of 2004. Collatoral arrives next week with some half-decent buzz attached, so there may be some good news there. And I've already seen the upcoming Chinese swordplay spectacle Hero and can happily report that if you liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you'll love this one. But even if every movie on the horizon turns out to be a full-blown masterpiece — and even with all the summery sequel goodness of Spider-Man, Shrek and Harry Potter — Summer 2004 is still going to leave a very bad taste in our mouths.
That very bad taste has a name, by the way, much as many of us are already dying to forget it. So we may as well just spit it out and get it over with.
Catwoman. There, I've said it.
In case you haven't already heard, Catwoman is the latest in the never-ending parade of heavily hyped summer movies based on comic book characters. It was directed by a French guy with a single name, it has lots of special effects, and it stars Halle Berry, who wears a costume combining the worst elements of faux-punk anti-fashion and S&M bondage gear. The costume, by the way, is so ugly and so stupid-looking that it even makes a stunner like Berry look like an idiot.
I'm guessing that this was not the effect that the filmmakers wanted to achieve. In any event, it's a fair indication of just the sort of jaw-dropping miscalculations — and there are many of them — that make Catwoman what it is.
If you wanted to be generous (and we do, we really do), you might make a case for reading Catwoman as a modern tale of female empowerment. Berry's character, Patience Phillips, is initially introduced to us as a meek little frump with zero self-esteem and a boatload of failed dreams. (She's also got a quirky, chubby gal pal and a perky, flirty gay pal, but they're basically just the accessories demanded by the script.) When she eventually transforms into Catwoman, she becomes strong, confident and independent — just like a cat, we're told, since "cats don't come when you call; they come when they want to."
Of course, cats are also pretty loopy creatures, often resembling furry little dementia victims reacting to all sorts of imaginary stimuli. In her flighty, mood-swinging way, Catwoman is almost as schizoid, doing all sorts of impulsive and basically dumb things that the screenwriters may have assumed would give her a veneer of unpredictability or dangerousness, but are probably just there to clumsily move the plot along. Catwoman's personality, motives and agenda are so sketchy, in fact, that it's next to impossible to tell if we're supposed to think of her as a superhero or a supervillain (although, again, I suspect that this vagueness is really just another example of shoddy scriptwriting). In any event, Berry's character is so full of too-high highs and low lows, that the movie ultimately reads less like a feminist tract and more like another reactionary jab at the female psyche as a slagheap of crazy, PMS-fueled hormones.
The movie begins with Berry's character accidentally finding out a little too much about a dastardly cover-up at a big cosmetics company, and getting snuffed out for her troubles. Never fear, though, as she is immediately resuscitated and transformed by a magical mystical housecat and his buddies, who apparently have the power to bestow amazing, feline powers on humans. It's a scene every bit as laughable as the climactic tete-a-tete between the talking dog and the bear at the end of Anchorman (see it!), but, in typically bungled Catwoman fashion, it's played straighter than straight, even as every inch of the screen screams its ridiculousness.
Soon enough, Patience is doing all sorts of cat-like stuff like leaping from great distances and landing on her feet, hissing at dogs, smearing catnip all over her face, and coughing up hairballs (sorry, I must have imagined that last one). In between scarfing down tins of Chicken-of-the-Sea (and yes, Jessica, it's not really chicken), she decides to put on that eyesore of a costume and go looking for the cosmetics company cover-uppers who did her wrong, although she also finds time to rob a jewelry store on a whim. Benjamin Bratt is in here somewhere too, as the hunky cop who Patience dates and then, inexplicably, taunts when she's in Catwoman mode (this being a movie where everybody acts like idiots, Bratt's ace detective doesn't have a clue they're the same woman).
Mono-nominal director Pitof made his rep as a visual effects supervisor, including work on some great films like Jeunet-Caro's City of Lost Children, and you can see those years of experience on display up on the screen here. Credit where it's due, Catwoman does look pretty darned good, in a slick, gratuitously showy way, with the camera constantly doing the old swoop-and-glide through one beautifully lit space after another. The all-important action scenes, though — mostly a series of fights set to an unholy combo of generic hip-hop and grinding sludge metal — are frenetically edited into incomprehensibility, and the CGI shots of Catwoman-in-motion look like graphics from some rinky-dink video game from 10 years ago.
There are touches of camp here (although nothing as juicy as Batman's anatomically correct latex costumes), but the movie doesn't take much joy in it, and its attempts at humor — mainly interludes with Patience and her gal pal (played by Mad TV's Alex Borstein) — fall disastrously flat. There are plenty of ostensibly dramatic moments that play unintentionally funny, too, and attempts at mixing these oil-and-water elements are almost nonexistent. Also missing in action is even the tiniest semblance of suspense — but hey, who needs that when you've got Halle Berry in leather?
Berry, who in the past has repeatedly proven herself a fine actor, seems lost here, mouthing the disposable dialogue, wiggling her butt in that horrible outfit, and occasionally attempting to channel Eartha Kitt and the ghosts of Catwomen past (at one point, she even trills a Kitt-like "Puurrr-fect"). Halle's not Eartha, though, and she's barely even Lee Meriwether, at least in the context of this sad mess. Lacking in both dramatic weight or any real sense of fun, her Catwoman is basically just a mishmash of bad ideas that eventually cancel each other out, finally adding up to something roughly as substantial as one of those aforementioned hairballs, and just about as yucky.
Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at [email protected].