If 2004’s Catwoman expressed anything, it wasn’t female empowerment, but the empowerment Halle Berry felt after winning her historic Oscar three years prior. Having already rocked her Bond-girl bikini in 2002’s Die Another Day, Berry kept on trucking with the sexualized-heroine angle, liberated by the kudos she netted for letting Billy Bob Thornton make her “feel good,” and no doubt thinking more about Catwoman’s iconography than the actual strength of the new film’s material. It’s hard to recall a recent Oscar victor with an odder post-win career than Berry. Critic David Edelstein has rather aptly called her out as being a “lovely non-actress,” and her taste in projects has been, quite frankly, bonkers. From Gothika to Cloud Atlas, there’s really no Berry film that one can admit to liking without a disclaimer. Catwoman, at least, is vividly exceptional, a good piece of trash with copious watchability, for both its car-wreck qualities and abundant camp delights. She may have showed up to collect the Razzie she ultimately won (again, galvanized by her shield of Academy approval), but it is a bit sad that Berry really isn’t in on the joke here. As Edelstein says, she’s an endearing and uncannily comely star, but she’s largely—and often, hilariously—to blame for this film’s undoing.
When Christian Bale adopted a distracting growl to play Batman in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the actor took a lot of flack. But if measured against the way in which Berry interprets Catwoman’s risible lines, that growl nearly takes on a velvety, Laurence-Olivier ring. It’s conceivable that Berry is aiming to evoke the rolled “R"s and emphatic sexiness of Eartha Kitt, the only other woman of color to play the eponymous vixen, but she misses the mark by employing, instead, a low-rent, phone-sex tone, hissing and clipping her grated-cheese dialogue like an overcompensatory drag queen. In The Dark Knight Rises, Anne Hathaway proved it is possible to make a line like “Cat got your tongue?” work, so Berry really can’t blame the writing there. And as hard it is to hear her recite things like “What a puuurrrfect idea,” it’s not far-fetched to imagine another actress clinching the delivery. But Berry shouldn’t carry the full burden of Catwoman’s failure. After all, nothing was going to save the scene in which her masked sexpot orders “cream, straight up” (aka “White Russian—hold the vodka, hold the Kahlúa”), and though she wildly overdoes it when strutting on rooftops and using her feline senses, the costume department certainly didn’t do her any favors.
Whereas Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle semi-plausibly stitched together what black garments she had in Batman Returns, Berry’s Patience Phillips is somehow outfitted with a much more tailored, yet crackpot, ensemble, with a helmet that nods to the Egyptian kitties so referenced in the film, and a bodice/belt/pant combo that’s as tawdry as all get out, resting somewhere at the intersection of Coyote Ugly, Ellen Ripley, and Barb Wire. There are ways in which director Pitof makes this look work, setting much of his action in the neon sanctuaries of nightclubs, where Patience might be mistaken for a zealous, Rihanna-loving pole-worker, doing her best S&M in the places where freaks come out. And just as Selina’s violent shift from feeling dejected to feeling “so much yummier” is manic makeover bliss, Patience’s revamping is a hoot to watch as well—a tame, girl-power antidote to Selina’s schizo freakout, complete with a dyed, self-styled coif, and the retrieval of an “emergencies only” leather getup, which serves as a placeholder until that doozy of a costume materializes. While it tries, though, Catwoman utterly fails to sell the duality perfected by Pfeiffer, as Patience hardly seems forcefully compelled by her newfound, feral impulses. Berry has never been one for nuance, and this movie’s greatest insult is its transparent insistence that she convey some inner conflict.
What else, then, does Catwoman get right? In truth, nothing, really, as even the film’s triumphs are exercises in tackiness. But there are some notable things to admire, provided you’ve already surrendered yourself to this queasy quasi-spin-off. First, there’s the infectious pop soundtrack, which pairs some appropriately, if stereotypically, urban-chick tracks with Patience’s animalistic emancipation. Natasha Schneider’s “Who’s in Control?” memorably accompanies that Selina-lite makeover, and “Scandalous,” by Mis-Teeq (you know the song), ups the energy level when Patience and cop-beau Tom (Benjamin Bratt) hit the basketball court for a flirtatious one-on-one. Another plus that probably goes unnoticed is the character of Sally (Alex Borstein), Patience’s co-worker, who, however stock a figure of comic relief, is, for once, a white joke-slinger playing second fiddle to the black lead. But Catwoman’s crowning achievement, if you can call it that, is the climactic cat fight between our bondage-ready queen of the night and Laurel Hedare, a vanity-driven millionairess played by a perfectly cast Sharon Stone. Though all signs originally point to her husband, George (Lambert Wilson), Laurel turns out to be the nasty brains behind Beau-Line, a skin cream made by the company that formerly employed Patience, and poses dire repercussions for any woman who stops using it. Naturally, Laurel isn’t just the Beau-Line president, she’s also a client, and there’s something spectacular and meta about Stone sporting indestructible, porcelain skin, which (spoiler alert) is left cracked like brittle alabaster when Laurel suffers a fatal fall. Whether intended or not, the villain’s plot line puts the movie itself in a nutshell, its moral professing the consequences of superficial sins. In a word, it’s “puuurrrfect.”