It was probably inevitable that someone would produce an unofficial remake of Single White Female set in college, and also likely that this someone would be Sony’s Screen Gems division, the go-to studio for teen-targeted cheap thrills. The surprise of The Roommate is just how ineffective a knockoff it is, how even those cheap thrills seem out of its price range.
The first thing any decent stalker picture needs is a resolute psycho, and The Roommate does have this. Leighton Meester, more or less the biggest star in the movie unless you can do some fancy Billy Zane-related math, plays Rebecca, which leaves Sara, the everygirl part, to Minka Kelly. Sara and Rebecca meet as freshmen and briefly bond. Then comes the uncomfortable mimicking, the obsessive phone calling, and eventually, the physical threatening.
In the early stages, the relative shut-in Rebecca actually comes across as more focused, intelligent, and sympathetic than anyone else onscreen. She likes art museums more than frat parties, doesn’t bow to peer pressure, and shows disdain for the other horrible people surrounding Sara. Rebecca’s instability becomes clearest when she takes the deadly dull Sara as her object of fixation: consider that Sara’s first and only movie recommendation is The Devil Wears Prada.
The imbalance is more pronounced as Meester out-acts her onscreen partner, at least to the extent that she’s allowed to out-act anyone. When she learns that Sara feels distress, we note the perverse flicker of pleasure that registers on her face at the opportunity to provide comfort. Kelly, meanwhile, with her tan skin, baby voice, and stylish hats, manages kind of a Jessica Alba impression, only without Alba’s occasional moxie—she’s an unspecific pushover.
With such a lopsided duo in the foreground, your eye may wander to the supporting cast, which is filled out with Screen Gems contract players like Aly Michalka and Cam Gigandet (both recently seen in Easy A, maybe the best movie Screen Gems has ever released). Michalka is consigned to her usual fearless-slut routine, disappearing by this film’s halfway mark, but Gigandet is something else: a creepy boor whom The Roommate insists is the nicest guy available. He hits on Sara by intentionally spilling beer on her, and the relationship doesn’t deepen. Their conversations have a facile emptiness that I think is supposed to pass for affectionate banter—perhaps the most chilling moments of the whole movie.
But a leading man with the faintest glimmer of likability wouldn’t solve The Roommate‘s central problem: a fatal lack of either kink or camp. It has flashes of the former when Rebecca pierces her own ears and steals some phone-sex with Sara’s ex, and glimpses of the latter when Billy Zane appears as an imposing, virile fashion genius. As Rebecca’s behavior gets more unhinged, though, the movie grows more cautious not only about violence and sex, but even suspense. Like Sara, it strives to avoid offending, upsetting or bothering anyone in the slightest.
The Roommate lacks even the conviction to be outrageously terrible. It’s competently shot (if sometimes choppily assembled), complete with sexy Los Angeles club lighting, but director Christian Christiansen doesn’t seem interested in taking on girl-world dynamics. Put another way: if you’re going to directly rip off a scene from Single White Female that involves oral sex and death by high heel, you’ll need something more inventive than some illicit snuggling and off-screen stabbing. Such scenes bear the scars of a demo-friendly PG-13 rating, par for the Screen Gems course. Rather than pushing boundaries, the movie, if anything, is only a few more cuts away from a PG.
That’s not to say The Roommate needs splatter or full-frontal nudity. What it needs are overtones, undertones, or any kind of off-kilter menace more complex than “OMG, Rebecca is totally nuts!” With its forced, go-nowhere dialogue and Kelly’s chipper blandness, it resembles a stalker film by way of The Hills: blank-eyed aspiring fashionistas go through the motions of intense relationships without much actually happening. Meester could’ve had fun with this moody, needy outcast, but The Roommate won’t indulge any kind of obsession.