The pseudo-feminist action picture Catwoman has some camp cachet, but isn't self-aware enough to cross through bad and become good again. Make no mistake, though: Catwoman is a spectacle, with Oscar-winner Halle Berry—or one of her live and CGI stand-ins—springing around in a shredded leather outfit more suited to an S&M bondage mistress than a superhero.
Director Pitof (sure, you can start laughing now) gets this joke, at least, with Catwoman finding she fits in just fine on the stage of a nouveau dance show or in the attention-seeking crowd of a nightclub hot-spot. A visual effects artist known for working with fellow Frenchmen Jeunet and Caro (The City of Lost Children), Pitof has yet to discover narrative smarts and visual restraint, instead indulging unconvincing computer effects. A hyperactive basketball sequence designed to prove Halle's new grrl-power(s), for instance, disappears behind a veil of extreme angles and literally dicey editing, not to mention the goofy score, stitched together from pulsing club beats, electronica, and moaning-woman choruses.
Berry's long-aborning Catwoman project—once earmarked for Ashley Judd, then Nicole Kidman—is Warner's diminished return from Batman Returns, in which director Tim Burton and star Michele Pfieffer reinvented Catwoman for the nineties. Here, though Warner Brothers credits Batman and Catwoman creator Bob Kane, no one mentions Batman, Gotham City, or Selena Kyle, the comics' Catwoman (Pfeiffer's picture appears fleetingly). D.C. Comics fans will have to bite their tongues through this one, as the character is instead loosely placed into a historical context apparently culled from Time-Life occult encyclopedias.
Berry plays Patience Phillips, a mousy marketing artist for a cosmetics company who becomes a sexually charged, powerful cat-woman. The new Beau-line cosmetic creme produces great results, as long as women like Patience's co-worker Sally (Alex Borstein, doing her Thelma Ritter thing) keep using it. If they stop, their faces scar up and become rock-hard. When Patience stumbles onto this information after-hours, corporate goons flush her out of the building for knowing too much. A concussive impact makes Patience drown, but she's revived by the magical power of cat breath. Well, it is ancient Egyptian cat breath, from a Mau named Midnight.
Patience saves Midnight from a high ledge on her apartment building, and local cop Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) saves Patience. Their "meet scary" encounter sets the tone for their relationship—or, rather, relationships—as Patience's identity splits: Patience by day, Catwoman by night. "Catwomen are not contained by the rules of society," explains Patience's new mentor, a cat lady named Ophelia (Frances Conroy of Six Feet Under). "You will experience a freedom other women will never know." Catwoman expresses her freedom by stealing shiny jewelry (then giving most of it back), assaulting her enemies, and threatening murder. Catwoman's a "bad girl," but righteous.
Berry does her part with a fearlessly silly performance that I had to sort of admire: lightly leaping around her apartment, scarfing down tuna and sushi, snorting catnip, and working a hip-swaggering prowl, Berry is recklessly game. Purring lines like "A girl like me lands on her feet," Berry clearly relishes her sex appeal and picking up the mantle of Eartha Kitt, who played Catwoman on the sixties TV show Batman (Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether also took turns, on the TV series and 1966 movie, respectively).
Matching Berry pound-for-presposterous-pound is Sharon Stone as Laurel Hedare, half of the husband-wife team that runs the cosmetics concern (French actor Lambert Wilson fares poorly with his own overacting as her sinister husband). Appropriately, Stone's character has a penchant for making scenes, and she tears into her chewy dialogue—"I turned forty and they threw me away!"— with abandon. When the two fight, the fur flies with more ridiculous one-liners. Stone hisses, "Game over!", and Berry shoots back, "Guess what? It's overtime!"
For all this, Catwoman wears its supposed feminism as a badge of honor, but settles for stupid simplicities. After dumping Stone's character, the greasy Wilson tells his young girlfriend, "Don't...think...ever. Consider it a condition of our relationship," while Bratt's cop is a monochromatic good guy, palling around with schoolkids in his off-hours. Though the story is credited to TV writer Theresa Rebeck (Law & Order: Criminal Intent), the screenplay credit goes to three men: John Brancato & Michael Ferris and John Rogers. Yes, a silently suffering woman is reborn as an ass-kicker, but she can't decide if she's good or bad, and she likes it that way. The morning after a night of back-scratching passion with Lone, she's wrestling him with a pair of handcuffs in the fly-space of a theatre. She's a strong woman, no doubt, but explain that to the guy admiring her barely-clad assets and dominatrix come-ons.