Imperfect Trio: The Hoax, Fracture and Perfect Stranger

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Barry Wetcher / Revolution Studios

Bruce Willis (left) and Halle Berry star in Revolution Studios' thriller Perfect Stranger.

Halle Berry is, in my opinion, the most beautiful woman in the world. There is an easy, entirely unthreatening sexuality about her, as well as a certain vulnerability on screen that enlists the male viewer's protective impulse. Someone this attractive does not deserve to be as hard-used as she often is.

If Berry has a problem, it lies in the material she and her management choose for her — lots of high-glamour and action showcases, not enough hard-core reality of the kind that brought her an Academy Award in Monster's Ball. Perfect Stranger represents the nadir in this line of thinking. She's Rowena Price, a hard-charging investigative reporter, whose main line of work seems to be catching prominent males in sexually compromised activity. Her putative victim is a high-profile ad man named Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) who may or may not have murdered her best childhood friend. Her modus operandi is to assume a couple of false identities — among them an Internet chatroom tease. She is also plagued by bad dreams hinting that she was a sexually abused child.

The movie would perhaps like to say something serious about the ease with which modern communications allows us to be multiple personalities, but that effort is lost in ineptitude. There is nothing more boring than movies that spend a lot of time focusing on a computer screen as characters exchange typed-out sexual innuendoes. There is also nothing more offensive than the motivation du jour of partially repressed horrific memories — especially in pictures that glow with glamour-trash aspirations. For that aspect of the story, Rowena gets a job in Hill's agency, which permits her to wear swell clothes, go to fancy parties and engage in flirtatious dialogue about "Hemingway Daiquiris" with Hill, who, his priapic ways aside, seems to be a nice enough guy.

We really don't believe he's a killer. But that brings us to the movie's central problem: a lack of alternative suspects. Rowena's needy, nerdy computer geek assistant (Giovanni Ribisi) is weird enough, but too obvious. Hill's wife is a vague possibility, but doesn't get enough screen time to be taken seriously. How the screenwriter, Todd Komarnicki, and the director, James Foley, resolve this problem is a genre travesty and an affront to their star.

Anthony Hopkins is not affronted in Fracture. As Ted Crawford, a super-smart engineer, he's pretty much recycling the rumbling intellectual arrogance of Hannibal Lecter and he seems energetically happy in his work. This time he murders his unfaithful wife, cheerfully admits the crime and acts as his own attorney in the subsequent murder trial. There are two main plot lines in Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers' screenplay. One is that the police officer investigating the case is, in fact, the dead woman's lover, which opens the possibility of doctored evidence. The other is the cat-and-mouse game Crawford plays with the prosecutor, Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling). Beachum is eager to close what appears to be an open-and-shut case and move on private practice with a white-shoe law firm. Wily Ted counts on Beachum's inattentiveness, but doesn't count on the young lawyer's scrappy spirit, his growing sense that justice must be done before ambition can be served. Up to a point, the movie has a certain intricacy and novelty.

The trouble comes — it is like Perfect Stranger in this respect — as it gropes for an ending. In this instance you can see it coming from a long way off and, it is something so obvious you can't believe Ted would not have noticed and anticipated it. But the cars are sleek, Ted's house is chic and even the courthouse — in real life they're pretty scuzzy places — has a kind of burnished glow about it. We relax into envy when we want to be drawn into terror. Luxe is, I think, the enemy of our involvement. It renders passion dispassionate and turns murder into a kind of fashion statement, something we observe without really caring about.

We do come to care about Clifford Irving. You remember Clifford — the second-tier novelist who claimed he was writing the authorized biography of the twentieth century's most famous recluse, Howard Hughes. Somehow he got a couple of big-time publishing entities, McGraw-Hill and Life magazine, to believe him. The evidence he produces to prove he has Hughes's cooperation is slender (almost transparently fraudulent), but as with all great scam artists, his success depends entirely on the willingness of his victims to suspend disbelief, Or, putting it another way, to allow their greed to override their common sense. What we have in The Hoax is the record not so much of a victimless crime, but of a self-victimizing crime.

It is also, curiously, the record of a pair of very hard-working crooks. Gere, as Irving, and Alfred Molina, as Dick Susskind, his timorous but devoted research assistant, probably put as much effort into researching their fake book as they would have for an authentic one. Since all biographies and autobiographies are in some sense fictional constructs, it could be (cynically) argued that their product was probably no less authentic than more respectable entries in the field. Indeed, in the aftermath of their effort, Irving has often insisted that theirs was a terrific book. Whether or not that's true, both Gere and Molina are themselves terrific as the con men. Gere persuasively portrays a guy whose confidence blossoms as he makes the discovery that as his lies grow so does the ease with which he tells them.

The movie, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and written by William Weaver, doesn't quite say so, but one gets the impression that by the end of Irving's odyssey, he may actually think he has had access to Hughes. What the hell — he's learned to emulate Hughes' handwriting and his voice. Maybe he really is, in some mystic way, channeling the legendary nut job. Susskind is less fortunate; he's always sweatily in touch with reality and with the potentially unpleasant consequences of what they're doing.

If the movie errs, it is in making a rather tenuous link between their enterprise and the Watergate scandal (it has to do with a relationship they uncover between Richard Nixon's brother and Hughes), which is supposed to grant their fraud a redeeming social value. The film also places a glamorous sheen on publishing that does not quite square with the slightly ink-stained realities of that world. But still...

True crime — especially the kind in which nothing but honor is lost — in this instance proves to be much more entertaining, particularly in the way it resists neat structuring and more acutely reflects the general messiness and desperation of life, than fictional crime. Some innocent early reviewers have discerned "Hitchcockian overtones" in Fracture. That's a pretty wet idea. But the old master was awfully good at making us root for his miscreants almost against our wills and this is the good little trick The Hoax manages to impose on us.