After raising the bar for summer blockbusters with its lyrical and imaginative third “Harry Potter,” Warner Bros. plummets to the dimmest recesses of popcorn inanity with “Catwoman,” which, even by the standards of comic book adaptations, requires a suspension of disbelief surely beyond most audiences. Risible yarn about a mousy underachiever rendered superhuman by arcane pussy power plays like a Lifetime movie on estrogen overdose, barely held together by a script that should have been tossed out with the kitty litter. The lure of Halle Berry as the leather-clad feline should help this mangy misfire claw out a decent opening before a quick slink to DVD.
Introduced in 1940 as villain The Cat in DC Comics’ “Batman,” Catwoman was played in the campy 1960s TV series by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether, emerging as a purrrfidious yet sexually enticing adversary to the Caped Crusader. She resurfaced memorably in Tim Burton’s 1992 “Batman Returns” as the dangerous alter ego of a schizophrenic secretary played by Michelle Pfeiffer. This latter incarnation appears to have been the template for producer Denise Di Novi’s furball of a spin-off. While the new film clearly opens doors to further sequels, DC Comics may have to wait for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming “Batman Begins” for a more viable franchise.
What’s missing primarily in John Brancato, Michael Ferris and John Rogers’ screenplay and in the manic, over-pumped music-video aesthetic of French director Pitof is any real sense of fun. The good girl/bad girl duality and internal conflict are so diluted they’re almost absent, and the flirtatious behavior that has always characterized the kittenish vixen is aimed not at another superhuman but at a blandly serviceable nice-guy cop.
An artist squandering her talents in the advertising department of cosmetics empire Hedare Beauty, Patience Phillips (Berry) lands her first big solo campaign on the company’s revolutionary new age-reversal goop, Beau-line. The launch coincides with the enforced retirement of longtime spokeswoman Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), who’s being put out to pasture by her imperious husband George (Lambert Wilson), replaced on billboards (and in bed) with a younger model.
At the same time, Patience begins a coy courtship with handsome cop Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), who compares her daubings to early Chagall or the Dutch masters in one of the movie’s more laughable exchanges.
One night, Patience overhears scientist Dr. Slavicky (Peter Wingfield) fretting about side-effects of Beau-line, which transforms flawless skin to pizza if applications are stopped. When the doc starts spouting dialogue like “I can’t live with turning people into monsters!” it’s clear he’s not long for this world. But the same goes for Patience, discovered by Hedare’s goons and sent to a watery death. Washed up on a rocky shore, Patience is surrounded by cats and given the breath of life by an Egyptian Mau.
Waking up hungry for sashimi and canned tuna, Patience seeks an explanation from academic kook Ophelia Powers (Frances Conroy), who lives in a quaint cottage in the otherwise built-up unnamed metropolis. In one of the film’s many half-baked attempts to push a female empowerment agenda, Ophelia explains how Patience was chosen for rebirth, becoming a creature both docile and aggressive, nurturing yet ferocious, unwilling to be contained by society’s rules.
By this time, nearly an hour in, Patience is regularly exploring the night in Gucci-esque leather fetishwear, hacking off her long tresses for a sexy crop and acquiring blonde frosting. Eager to know who was responsible for ending her previous life, she zeroes in on her former bosses. But after initially positioning herself as an ally, Laurel is revealed to be far more lethal than George, her years of toxic Beau-line treatment giving her a marble-skinned imperviousness to pain.
While there should be some pleasure in seeing whip-cracking Catwoman and buff uberbitch Laurel in a kickass face-off, the characters are such cardboard cutouts and the action is cut so frenetically that there’s neither emotional payoff nor visceral thrills.
Stone seems to be enjoying herself more than anyone onscreen, but her icy deposed beauty queen feels like a refugee from some ’80s Jackie Collins miniseries, while Berry appears to be channeling Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls” in a performance that’s all whiplash head-turns and searing glances, coated with more body glitter and lip gloss than a troop of pole-dancers.
Perhaps because much of her screentime is as meek and awkward Patience, there’s a serious lack of authority and charisma in Berry’s leading turn. Together with her roles in “Die Another Day,” “X-2” and “Gothika,” Berry’s recent choices seem bizarre in their studious refusal to capitalize on the serious-actress validation of her “Monster’s Ball” Oscar.
Bratt is generically charming (despite seeming like the only cop in a huge city), while Wilson appears to have come on set directly from the “Matrix” sequels without bothering to step out of character, and Conroy deserves better than this.
Unimonikered Pitof’s background was in visual effects (Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s “Delicatessen,” “The City of Lost Children”) before he graduated to second unit director (Jeunet’s “Alien: Resurrection”) and to solo director (French hi-def digital feature “Vidocq”).
“Catwoman” doesn’t suffer from quite the same coldness as those films, but there’s a severe imbalance in the over-designed universe and the poorly fleshed out figures that populate it. The most arresting sequence is the opening titles, which elegantly recap the evolution of the ancient Egyptian Mau breed and women wearing cat fashions over the centuries.
Elsewhere, Pitof’s style is kinetically charged, but pays too little attention to nuances of character or storytelling. Some larger set pieces — like a brush between Catwoman and Lone high above the stage during a Cirque du Soleil-type trapeze act — seem merely cluttered and messy.
On the f/x side, Catwoman’s panther-like prowling and leaping have a jerky, artificial look and lack of fluidity. Fight movements, based on Brazilian martial arts discipline Capoeira, are more convincingly rendered, though hampered by the filmmakers’ overriding belief that editing at trailer speed is the surest way to build excitement.
Production designer Bill Brzeski’s elaborate setting adheres to the DC Comics spirit in its blend of residential streets with the shadowy cityscape of Catwoman’s nocturnal playground and the sleek modern design of Hedare’s HQ, all shot in muscular, swooping style by French d.p. Thierry Arbogast.
Like everything else in the movie, Klaus Badelt’s big synth score tends to be over-emphatic, incorporating occasional hip-hop accents.