Catwoman (2004)

This review was originally published at Christianity Today.

Reviewing Catwoman, a film critic can take the easy road: find the most readily available derogatory metaphor relating to cats.

“It’s the pick of the litter box,” for starters. Or, “This kitty’s just roadkill that’s been left to bake in the sun too long.” Too grisly? How about, “The summer’s biggest hairball!” No, that was probably used in a review of Garfield—still, Garfield looks good compared to Catwoman. Critics will have a lot of fun with titles too. Will anyone try “I Tawt I Taw a Tawdry Tat”? Or, perhaps, “Wuss in Boots”?

Or, you could get personal: You could question why an Oscar-winning actress like Halle Berry would choose for her next big performance a role that reinforces damaging female stereotypes for sex-obsessed male viewers. Or you could just ask her why she’d take part in a movie with such a a worthless script.

The answer to those two questions is pretty obvious: more fame and more money. In The New York Times this week, Berry expressed her drive to “survive” in the business. “I’ve survived ups and downs. If this doesn’t work, you keep trying, keep throwing it up against the wall. As an actor, it’s what we do.” Yep. “Throwing it up” just about says it all.

Someone should tell Berry about those actors who have more dignity and who aim for something higher than mere “survival,” who show discernment in the parts they choose. Not every actress is so willing to compromise. Berry may be the first African-American actress to win an Oscar, but she’s got a fair distance to climb to match the integrity and skill manifested by some of her peers. Alfre Woodard (Passion Fish, Grand Canyon) and Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Sunshine State) have shown they can command the screen with performances rather than various states of undress.

But enough about Berry—it is the critic’s primary task to assess the film, not the career of its star. And there’s not much to say about Catwoman. The summer that gave us what is arguably the best comic book movie of all time—Spider-Man 2—has now choked up what is arguably the worst.

A quick history: On the Batman TV show of the 1960s, Eartha Kitt made Catwoman and her secret identity—Selina Kyle—famous. In 1992′s Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer turned in an Oscar-worthy performance for director Tim Burton. Pfeiffer transformed Kyle into a wacky, semi-psychotic avenger for all exploited secretaries. There, she fought the bad guys in a man’s world, but she also challenged damsels in distress to stick up for themselves. Her undisciplined tactics clearly identified her as a villain, but Burton was smart enough to depict her as depressed, dissatisfied, and redeemable. There was a broken heart driving Catwoman’s manic antics. She was at least as interesting as Batman, if not more.

Thus, the Catwoman movie project has been a promising possibility, generating hopeful rumors for years. At first, fans hoped for Pfeiffer’s return. For a while, Ashley Judd looked likely to wield Catwoman’s whip.

Now we have Halle Berry’s version of Catwoman, a similarly reckless vigilante who has a similarly secretarial start. She’s not Selina Kyle, though. Her name is Patience Phillips, and she’s a graphic designer for a cosmetics empire. Like Kyle, she’s killed by her wicked employers after discovering that a new cosmetic line—Beau-line—has a devastating chemical makeup. Voodoo cats work their magic, and Phillips, like Kyle, is reborn as a woman with superhuman, feline abilities. With the guidance of a catwoman guru (Six Feet Under‘s Frances Conroy), she comes to understand her place in a long line of proud pussycat people.

Like Selina Kyle, Phillips lacks moral backbone, but there’s a major difference: the filmmakers condone — yea, celebrate — Catwoman’s wickedness. There’s no Bruce Wayne to appeal to her conscience. In fact, there’s no higher moral ground in this film for her to discover at all. She’s treated like a role model for all women, exploiting her sex appeal in order to punish the bad men and manipulate those that are stupid but attractive. The film’s villains exist only so Catwoman can claw, scratch, kick, and humiliate them while prancing around in the skimpy leather guise of a dominatrix. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman dressed in black leather too, but that qualified as a costume; Berry’s get-up reveals more than it conceals.

In fact, the whole “fighting crime” element seems secondary in the film, which spends its first half worshiping Berry’s bronzed skin, bright eyes, and striking smile, and the second half flaunting her in her soft-core porn costume. It’s rather ironic that the film’s villains are the royalty of a cosmetics empire. We’re supposed to scoff at these merchants of superficiality even as we cheer for a “hero” who’s all about gratuitous lipstick and sexploitation.

There aren’t even any good action scenes to make things entertaining. Catwoman‘s CGI-stuntwoman is so obviously the figment of a computer’s imagination that the movie often looks like a video game in development. The director, Pitof, was brought in on the merits of his impressively designed French action film Vidocq. And again, he shows some sense of visual creativity. But he’s more talented with sets and lights than actors, and the lousy special effects distract the audience from the film’s somewhat impressive aesthetics.

The animation is bad, but the dialogue’s even worse. And the “supporting” cast is no support whatsoever. Alex Borstein, who has earned a lot of laughs with her inspired work on MadTV, proves here that a dumb superhero comes with an even dumber girlfriend. Her comedy flatlines here and her character is reduced to an annoying “You go, girl!” cheerleader.

Then there’s Benjamin Bratt, as the “love” interest who amounts to little more than an empty-headed Hollywood hunk. Bratt plays Tom Lone, a cop who gets a crush on Phillips when he saves her life. From that moment on, she’s in heat and he’s too distracted to perform any decent police work. In a scene that tries (too late) to make these characters dramatic and sympathetic, he is forced to interrogate his new girlfriend as a murder suspect, and he looks like he’s re-auditioning for his old job on TV’s Law and Order where he had a real character to play.

The villains, George and Laurel Hedare, are a pathetic pair played by Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone. Wilson, who was so wickedly charming as The Matrix‘s Merovingian, plays just a dull, mean, cookie-cutter bad guy here. George’s vain and venomous wife is the real villain. Laurel was once the glamorous face of the company’s cosmetics empire. But now, a younger talent has replaced her both on the magazine covers and in her husband’s affections.

There’s something wonderfully ironic about casting Sharon Stone in this part. When she starred in Basic Instinct, Stone found stardom through sensual flaunting, the way Berry does here, albeit in a more R-rated fashion. Thus, it rings true to see her here playing a jaded middle-aged diva obsessed with preserving her youthful sex appeal, even if it turns her skin to “living marble,” while other material girls rise to de-throne her.

But even Basic Instinct had a sense of good versus evil. Catwoman is so invested in exhibitionism that it never develops anything like a moral conflict. This is a match between villains versus an annoying, arrogant vigilante acrobat. Oh, sure, she saves a kid from a ferris wheel gone bad, and her laughably digitized stuntwoman kicks the lights out of some bank robbers. But the central threads are the carnal relationship and the duels between drama queens.

A talented storyteller could have found a good plot here about the difference between style and substance, flesh and spirit. Where Spider-Man demonstrates that “with great power comes great responsibility,” Catwoman‘s slogan affirms only this: “Freedom is power.” That’s right. Your free will offers you the opportunity to return evil for evil, rather than overcoming it with good. “I may not be a hero,” Patience admits at the conclusion, “but I’m certainly not a killer.” She is, however, a liar, a vigilante, a hasty fornicator, and a fool.

Berry says the movie is “about being empowered, being O.K. in your skin.” Hopefully, we can be “O.K. in our skin” (and our clothing as well) without stooping to such licentious behavior. Explaining her willingness to debase herself in this way, she said, “It’s sexy. It’s where I’ve evolved to as a woman.” If this is where evolution takes a person, we’d all do well to resist it.

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