Perhaps the scales of karmic justice require that in order to keep the universe in balance, the best superhero movie ever made must be quickly followed by one of the worst. So less than a month after the appearance of “Spider-Man 2” we now are called upon to endure “Catwoman.” This movie is so bad that it’s like “Daredevil” with a gender switch. (Or is that the threatened “Elektra”?) However you look at it, this movie is purr-fectly awful, the celluloid equivalent of an untended litter box.
The first sin, at least in the minds of comic-book aficionados, will be that the script devised by John Brancato, Michael Ferris and John Rogers doesn’t have a great deal in common with the title character’s original incarnation in the “Batman” comics. Catwoman was at first just one of the many oddly-costumed villains the Caped Crusader regularly battled. DC refashioned her in the 1990s, under the influence of Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” (1992), into a mixture of thief and heroine, and it’s from this concept that the screenplay takes off. But the writers have chosen to construct a whole “origins” back-story that turns Catwoman into a super-powered figure, and it couldn’t be more silly. In this refashioning, she’s at first just Patience Philips (Halle Berry), a mousy advertising woman who’s killed by her evil employers at a cosmetics firm. She’s not only brought back to life by a mysterious feline that has ties to the ancient Egyptian deities (from the look of things the cat breathes one of its nine lives into her body) but is simultaneously given catlike powers that permit her to leap about walls and ceilings like Spider-Man and, for some reason, endow her with great facility in the use of a whip. (Maybe that comes from the natural feline proclivity for playing with string?) Dressing in a fetching leather outfit that’s gradually reduced to the skimpiest proportions–by the close she looks decidedly like a practiced dominatrix–she goes on a hissy fit to avenge her own death. In the process, though, she becomes the object of police scrutiny, particularly on the part of Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), a cop who’s sweet on Patience but comes to suspect that she and his quarry are one and the same.
The ludicrousness of this scenario, cobbled together from shards gleaned from scores of other comic-book backstories, would be difficult to surpass. Deriving the heroine’s abilities from what amounts to pyramid power is a dumb enough idea in itself, but the scene in which the sacred cats actually grant her them is so over-the-top as to move into pure farce. Making a couple of snooty cosmetic-firm kingpins–George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and his venomous wife Laurel (Sharon Stone), who are about to market an anti-aging cream with dangerous side-effects–the villains is a further miscalculation; they’re clearly the least threatening, most comic bad-guys in a picture of this sort since Faye Dunaway vamped her way through “Supergirl.” And the obligatory romantic subplot never takes hold; Patience and Lone prove a totally uncharismatic pairing. To add to the insult, the special effects are at best mediocre. After the seamless “Spider-Man 2,” the leaps and bounds in this picture are jumpy and unconvincing; even darkness and shadow can’t cover the imperfections. (And the culminating cat-fight between our heroine and Laurel marks the nadir.)
All of the performers are cruelly affected by this inanity. Berry embarrasses herself in both Patience and Catwoman parts, especially when she wiggles her derriere provocatively as the camera lingers on her tightly-clad super-hero behind. (She makes Angelina Jolie’s Laura Croft seem positively demure and subtle.) Bratt looks understandably uncomfortable in the Lois Lane (or should we say Mary Jane Watson?) role. And down the line things get even worse. Wilson’s preening arrogance is a one-note act that gets old fast, and Stone outshrews even Dunaway. Frances Conroy, of “Six Feet Under,” shows up as the cat-lady who own Midnight, the feline who gives Patience her powers, and who explains them to her in a quasi-Nietzschean bit of feminist empowerment babble that takes the script into regions of surrealistic hilarity. (Her autobiographical quip about being a professor for twenty years before being denied tenure by male-dominated academia is particularly nonsensical; she just should have called the AAUP. And if she were so cruelly treated, how could she afford a huge mansion in the heart of the city?) Even she’s topped, though, by Alex Borstein, as Patience’s endlessly wise-cracking best friend–a character so annoying, and so annoyingly played, that when she winds up in the hospital you might hope she’ll be the picture’s next casualty. Actually the best performance is given by Midnight, who’ll probably not get the awards recognition she deserves.
Even after all this, however, there’s even worse news. “Catwoman” is visually dreadful; it looks less like a comic-book movie than a feature-length S&M video. It’s directed by somebody who calls himself Pitof (always beware of films made by directors who use only a single name), a fellow who’s made his name in commercials, videos and effects work and, working with cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (who’s done a good deal of work with Luc Besson, never a good sign) and editor Sylvie Landra (ditto), makes the common mistake of people with that background in seeming to believe that every frame of a picture has to be active and pulsating, leaving no pauses for audiences to catch their breath. The camera pans and swoons endlessly, so much that in many cases it might cause a viewer to experience motion sickness. The color scheme in the production design by Bill Brzeski, moreover, is garish and unpleasant almost throughout, which–when combined with that relentlessly active camerawork, makes for an indigestible mix. And the cutting is often so rapid-fire and in-your-face, especially in the action scenes, that it’s positively exhausting.
The final scene of “Catwoman” virtually promises that the flick is the first in a series. Let’s just hope Warner Bros. follows Bob Barker’s advice and gets this feline spayed to prevent a sequel.