I will go down with this ship.
And I won’t put my hands up and surrender.
—Dido, “White Flag”
Rowena (Halle Berry) lies for a living. Making her way into a U.S. Senator’s office at the start of Perfect Stranger, she poses as a friendly representative of Family First, cozying up to the Senator’s own conservative self-image. Suddenly, she reveals that she’s a journalist armed with evidence that her host has been having sex with his male interns. Urrgh for Senator Mark Foley Stand-In.
Pleased with her triumph, Rowena, who writes under the name “David Chase,” heads off for an evening of toasting the “little people” she’s protecting with shots and beer with her best friend Miles (Giovanni Ribisi). But no! When she learns the story has been squashed by her publisher, the half-drunk Rowena has a bit of a meltdown in front of her boss, quitting her job and protesting that the decision is another instance of “Powerful men protecting powerful men.” (She even tires to make the point topical, by asserting, “We’re supposed to be reporting the news, not covering it up. It’s like not showing the dead bodies coming from Iraq. If you don’t see it, it didn’t happen!”)
Striding away into the night—Miles is apparently left whimpering and alone at the bar—Rowena is instantly spotted by a childhood friend, Grace (Nicki Aycox). This incredible coincidence, at New York’s Christopher Street subway station, hardly surprises Ro. She looks mostly bored until she learns that Grace is grumpy about her own recent betrayal by a powerful man, namely, multimillionaire advertising exec Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). As Grace tells it, she met him online, shared a bout of wild sex, and was then summarily dumped. Bastard! She comes equipped with a paper file of emails to convince Rowena to help her get revenge. Now that’s a super-coincidence.
Almost as soon as Rowena says she’ll think about it, Grace turns up dead. To only does Ro have to go down to the morgue to identify the grisly body (it’s been in a river, its eyes are wrecked by poison), Grace’s very sad mom shows up. It appears that Ro suddenly has all kinds of motivation to jump into this extremely personal investigation. (This point is underlined in feeble fashion, when Rowena’s reconsideration of events turns into a flashback sequence of Grace images you have just seen, like, a minute ago: this is thriller-making for stupid viewers, assuming you can’t keep up even that long.)
While it begins dully enough for an investigative thriller, Perfect Stranger quickly skids off into abject foolishness. Her scheme to nail Hill is increasingly nonsensical, a series of disconnected setups to get Halle Berry into variously sexed-up situations and outfits. Her first step is to engage Hill online, though even that seemingly straightforward deception quickly turns odd. Engaging computer-whiz Miles’ help to get through Hill’s firewall, she also starts chatting with him (Miles does have the good sense to laugh out loud at Hill’s “seductive” email: “I’m gonna fuck you so hard, I’m gonna split you in two”—what is this, To Catch a Predator?). A clever boy as well as arrogant, Miles tricks out Ro’s machine with samples of Hill’s voice, so when he types, you get to hear him (“Are you turned on?” he asks, wittily), just as she helpfully reads out loud all her own typing to him (“Yes”).
Because typing (not to mention reading out loud) is hardly an effective visual (see: You’ve Got Mail), the movie lurches into plot two, in which Ro dons a tight skirt and lands an undercover temp job at Hill’s advertising agency (where the primary account just so happens to be Victoria’s Secret, allowing for plenty of product placement by way of models in bras and panties). As they flirt in person during the day, she continues to flirt with him as “rocketgirl” online at night, that is, when she’s not having stand-up-against-the-wall hot-hot sex with her ex, Cameron (Gary Dourdan). This half a plot with Cam seems designed to complicate Rowena’s relationship with Grace (the dead girl), as he was sleeping with her, but Perfect Stranger drops that detail and then summarily abandons it.
Except for one bit of that detail, which is that Miles objects to Cameron, because he has his own mighty crush on Ro. Not only does he program her laptop to repeat, parrot-like, “Miles is sexy,” but he also insinuates himself into her email conversations with Hill. This makes him awfully creepy even as it ensures his utter dedication to enabling her various deceptions, so their occasional arguments don’t carry much in the way of menace or import. Instead, the movie turns more and more inside Rowena’s exceedingly private pathology—most often by flashbacks suggest she was sexually abused by a white father or stepfather (“You know how daddy likes bath time!”), while her black mother looked on in horror, at least at first. These fragments are an obvious device, but they do reveal, however heavy-handedly, that Ro has longstanding reasons for wanting to take down powerful men.
But Perfect Stranger can’t actually be bothered with characterization or worse, development. And so it plunges ahead, granting Rowena moments of cryptic wisdom (“All it takes to commit a murder are the right ingredients at the right time”) as well as corrections to Miles’ biblical citations (it’s not money that’s the root of all evil, she chides him, but “the love of money”) and a snappy beret she wears when she goes spying on Hill’s trysts. For no clear reason, Rowena actually looks interested in Hill, plying a fellow Victoria’s Secret gift bag stuffer, Gina (Clea Lewis), for the scoop. Oh, his wife keeps him on a short leash, she says. But still, he’s “into some very kinky shit.” Which brings up yet another half-a-plot: Hill is policed at the office by his assistant, an “Amazonian” lesbian named Josie (Daniella Van Graas)—or, as Gina snipes, “Cu-Josie.” If only Gina were the film’s focus. She appears to have a rudimentary sense of humor.