Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Catwoman

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CATWOMAN

4/10

USA 2004 : ‘PITOF’ (i.e. Jean-Christophe COMAR) : 101 mins

Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) is a mousy aspiring artist working in the advertising department of a cosmetics firm Hedare. When she stumbles across the fact that the company’s latest product Beau-Line has toxic side-effects, security personnel chase her to a watery demise. Or not quite – she’s miraculously resurrected by a mystical Egyptian cat. Now endowed with superhuman feline powers, Patience develops a ferociously confident new alter-ego as Catwoman – and promptly seeks revenge against her former boss George Hedare (Lambert Wilson). But her real foe turns out to be George’s ruthless wife Laurel (Sharon Stone)…

Brevity is a virtue – within limits. As esteemed UK critic Nigel Floyd discovered when a magazine asked him for 300 words on Catwoman. On seeing the film, he reckoned that a rather shorter verdict might suffice: “Piss off, Pitof!” The magazine wouldn’t play ball, sadly preventing Floyd from joining the pantheon of extreme critical terseness alongside Walter Kerr’s legendary “Me no Leica” (on John van Druten’s play I Am a Camera) and Steven Wells’s two-letter review of the self-titled LP by prog-rockers Yes: “No.”

Most of Floyd’s colleagues are in accord: the critical consensus is that Catwoman is – ahem – a dog. But in the wake of the Spider-Man and X-Men pictures, it’s easy to forget how tricky this genre can be to translate into film. Sam Raimi stumbled with his first try, 1990’s misfiring Darkman, and Catwoman isn’t really so much worse. The end-product certainly bears scars of a troubled history: hasty post-testing reshoots, and numerous rewrites. The tell-tale is the screenplay credit, indicating two separate drafts by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who work as a team) in one corner and John Rogers in another. Brancato and Ferris wrote The Game and Terminator 3 – safer therefore to blame Rogers, whose The Core provided Hilary Swank with a post-Oscar change-of-pace no less unfortunate than Berry’s here. Rogers shouldn’t bank on receiving any calls from Charlize Theron in the near future.

Berry, meanwhile, perhaps needs a change of agent: disappointingly she really isn’t much more convincing as the leather-clad, whip-cracking Catwoman than she is as the tuna-gobbling Patience. On paper the role is an intriguing choice: Berry famously played Dorothy Dandridge on TV, and the Catwoman character does allow her to nod back towards another women-of-color pioneer, Eartha Kitt, whose small-screen wedding with Adam West’s Batman was vetoed by nervy studio bosses. And it’s refreshing to see a protagonist so different from the standard white male at the centre of nearly all superhero pictures (even the word ‘superheroine’ sounds odd to the ear.) The subtexts of gender and racial empowerment give the film a dimension lacking from the usual revenge-of-dweeb arc: the once-meek Patience becomes in effect a Foxy-Brown-type figure proud to flaunt her “brown sugar.”

But these intriguing angles aren’t developed – instead, we overdose on a flaccid “romance” plot involving spectacularly dense cop Tom Lone (an awkward-looking Benjamin Bratt). Perhaps it’s that dodgy Dasani he’s seen drinking – one of the more baffling examples of the picture’s copious product-placement. We have plenty of time to mull over such oddities as the action set-pieces do little to hold our attention. Pitof’s hyperkinetic style and Thierry Arbogast’s slightly distorted (cat-eye?) cinematography render many scenes difficult to follow and a couple downright ludicrous – i.e. a basketball one-on-one clumsily set to a Mis-Teeq number.

Despite the glaring flaws, however, the basic concept is sufficiently different and appealing that a decent little franchise-starter might possibly have been built from it. This isn’t that picture, though: Berry’s final line “And so my journey begins!” is optimism of the wildest order. The picture does at least show flashes of self-deprecating humour – naming Frances Conroy’s exposition-spouting cat-expert ‘Ophelia Powers’ veers close to spoof. And our heroine’s antics and powers aren’t really any sillier than Tobey Maguire’s masturbatory webslinging in Spider-Man – even if the film-makers avoid the temptation of having Catwoman do what Puss-in-Boots did on Donkey’s back in Shrek 2. Computer-enhanced felines, yes. CGI pussy, no.

13th August, 2004
(seen 9th August : Odeon, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show)

by Neil Young