Thrills have seldom seemed as routine as they do in "The Rich Man's Wife," a lady-and-the-psycho yarn so generic it might have been constructed by computer printout. Whether for noble or foolish reasons, pic wastes its one story element with a strong contempo hook, declining to explore the social ramifications of murder in a mixed-race high-society marriage in L.A.

Thrills have seldom seemed as routine as they do in “The Rich Man’s Wife,” a lady-and-the-psycho yarn so generic it might have been constructed by computer printout. Whether for noble or foolish reasons, pic wastes its one story element with a strong contempo hook, declining to explore the social ramifications of murder in a mixed-race high-society marriage in L.A. All that’s left is a suspenser so lacking in new angles that fans of star Halle Berry, who proves capable despite the circumstances, will be among the few to catch it on its headlong dive toward the vid bins.

Opening noir-style, with heroine Josie Potenza (Berry) handcuffed and offering to tell the cops her version of recent events, tale flashes back to three weeks before, when Josie’s main problems are a marriage gone to seed and a rich, older hubby, Tony (Christopher McDonald), who’s addicted to booze. It appears that both partners have been carrying on affairs; Josie’s is with Jake (Clive Owen), a restaurateur beholden to Tony. Still, she’s willing to give the marriage one more try, and persuades Tony to take a romantic vacation to a remote mountain lake.

When creeping boredom and business prompt him to make an early return to the city, she’s left alone in the rural retreat. A chance encounter in a bar and a breakdown on a desolate road, though, bring one new acquaintance: Cole (Peter Greene), a suspicious oddball who coaxes Josie into saying that she’d like to see Tony dead. When Cole offers to do the deed, she retracts the wish. When he tries to force himself on her physically, she fends him off with a gun.

Back in L.A., she gets to enjoy a few moments of illusory freedom and hope of marital revival before Cole pops up and, in a particularly extended and horrific bit of carnage, kills Tony. He then demands payment from Josie, warning that she’ll be implicated if she tries to go the police. Confused and terrified, all she can think to do is confide in Jake. But wouldn’t you know: Jake put Cole up to the deed and now discovers he can’t control his homicidal accomplice.

Needless to say, the cops are no help. Slow on the uptake, as their movie kind tends to be, they make a couple of references to the fact that white Tony and black Josie were an odd couple for upper-crust L.A., but as if not wanting to offend any aud’s sensibilities, the film then backs away from any probing of the racial angle.

Tale’s remainder plays out strictly according to the genre rule book. Victims walk into dark rooms without flicking the light switch, the killer comes crashing through the skylight at the worst possible moment. For her part, Berry does what’s asked of her: look beautiful, act scared, run fast. While the star proves adept at all this, pic won’t go down in history as the one that proved her dramatic range.

Nor is it much of a romantic vehicle. For all that it lacks in terms of psychological depth and social resonance, helmer Amy Holden Jones’ script is just as deficient as a basis for erotic chemistry. Put simply, there are no sparks whatsoever between Berry and the story’s main men, which leaves the actors deprived as well. McDonald and Owen are serviceable enough in a context that, unfortunately, asks nothing more. Greene, a sharp actor who crafted some exceedingly striking weirdos in “Clean, Shaven,” “Pulp Fiction” and other films, here seems set on cruise control, resting the bulk of his performance on an excessive application of eyeliner.

Standout perfs all belong to the supporting cast. Charles Hallahan and Frankie Faison evidence enough gruff charm and believability to overcome the cliche quotient in their roles as the cops who are always two steps behind the killer. But the trophy goes to Clea Lewis for her funny, shrewd, almost show-stopping turn as Jake’s ex-wife, whose motives give the film its one real surprise. Lewis’ work, so fresh and clever it’s startling, merits the attention of casting agents everywhere.

Although her script is the source of the film’s hackneyed feel, Jones’ direction is generally top-drawer. Beyond her work with the supporting cast, she provides a polished, fluid look and proves especially effective at mounting punchy, visceral action scenes.

Led by Haskell Wexler’s nuanced lensing and Wendy Greene Bricmont’s taut editing, pic’s tech credits are thoroughly pro.

The Rich Man's Wife

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation in association with Caravan Pictures. Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Julie Bergman Sender. Executive producer, Jennifer Ogden. Directed, written by Amy Holden Jones.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Haskell Wexler; editor, Wendy Greene Bricmont; music, John Frizzell; musical theme, James Newton Howard; production design, Jeannine Oppewall; art direction, William Arnold; costume design, Colleen Kelsall; sound (Dolby Digital), Ed Novick; assistant director, John R. Woodward; casting, Nancy Klopper. Reviewed at Gotham Theater, N.Y., Sept. 11, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Josie Potenza - Halle Berry
Tony Potenza - Christopher McDonald
Jake Golden - Clive Owen
Cole - Peter Greene
Dan Fredricks - Charles Hallahan
Ron Lewis - Frankie Faison
Nora Golden - Clea Lewis
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