New Thrills for Pretty Woman: SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

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Directed by Joseph Ruben; Screenplay by Ronald Bass

Julia Roberts, what has she got? A nice face, modest acting ability, an imposing resume and plenty of media coverage. But, mostly, she's got big hits. In the popular Steel Magnolias she parlayed a deathbed scene into an Oscar nomination. She was the Cinderella slattern in Pretty Woman, a worldwide smash that has earned more than $400 million. Even the brain-dead drama Flatliners, in which she had an unrewarding role, grossed $60 million Stateside -- a testament to her drawing power.

Why, then, does one suspect that Roberts has been more lucky than smart? Because there is an emptiness at the core of her charm. You will look in vain for, say, the weary beauty of Michelle Pfeiffer, the elfin intensity of Winona Ryder, the resilient wit of Jodie Foster, the cunning sensuality of Annette Bening. Most of all, Roberts lacks mystery. She does not seduce the viewer into wanting to know more about her characters or herself. She is not the engine of movie hits, only their ornament.

She will be tested with the release of Sleeping with the Enemy, a subordinary thriller with the requisite tingles and cheats expected of a woman-in-jeopardy melodrama. Here Roberts is Laura Burney, abused wife. Her husband Martin (Patrick Bergin) oozes empathy and flares into brutality. If she does anything wrong, or nothing wrong, he will beat her into zombie silence. So Laura fakes her own death and flees to small-town safety in the care of a solicitous drama teacher (Kevin Anderson). But Martin is as tenacious as he is possessive. The Beast will find Beauty. And Laura will again be in mortal dread, as she must, of the things a man can do to a woman.

In Nancy Price's novel, Martin was as fully formed a predator as Laura was a prey. And at the climax, she finally got to be in control of their marriage. But this movie is interested neither in getting under a psychopath's scalp nor in making Laura a feminist hero. At its end she is still the harassed girl, misreading signs of threat and dropping her gun at inopportune moments. So the actress must play Laura's fragility instead of her strength. It makes for another indifferent portrait in a bland Roberts gallery. As such -- go figure -- it will probably make a Fort Knox bundle.