April 05, 2006

The Good The Bad The ugly

Basic Instinct 2

At the risk of sounding sexist, it's difficult to watch Basic Instinct 2 without picturing Sharon Stone undergoing a Norma Desmond–style regimen of manicures and backrubs — preparing for the close-up that's eluded her for 14 years.

Make no mistake: Stone can be quite a good actress, as Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995) will attest. But she never quite recovered from the stereotyping of her breakthrough role — or the infamous uncrossing of her legs — in the original Basic Instinct, even if the film was as much about its perceived male viewers' response to her as it was an erotic fantasy in its own right. The sequel is an inane attempt to recapture the energy that made her a star.

In Basic Instinct 2, the eminently watchable Stone takes herself way too seriously — and ditto the movie as a whole. Writers Henry Bean (The Believer) and Leora Barish have labored under the misimpression that the first Basic Instinct was a psychological thriller, rather than — as is director Paul Verhoeven's wont — a sly act of genre subversion. With cops so no-nonsense they all suggested steroidal, libidinous Jack Webbs, plus an outrageous bisexual killer on hand to pump their testosterone to fatal levels, the movie had to be taken for laughs; the extreme slickness is exactly what's funny. That Verhoeven's mise-en-scène was so immaculate both enhanced and obscured the movie's comic aspects, which screenwriter Joe Eszterhas may or may not have intended. Among other things, Basic Instinct was a better pastiche of Vertigo than anything Brian De Palma has ever done.

With little intentional comedy, a surprising lack of sex appeal, and action set pieces that seem staged as much for camp as for excitement, the London-set Basic Instinct 2 takes the same plot as the first film and uses it as a springboard for a more standard — or at least more boring — police procedural: At the outset, Catherine drives into the Thames at 110 miles an hour, and the man who was drunkenly pleasuring her drowns. At her interrogation, she's not particularly upset ("Who knows if I'll ever come again," she wonders aloud), and the case throws her into the hands of Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey), a chiseled psychiatrist who claims that Catherine is addicted to taking risks.

Like Michael Douglas's character in the first movie, Michael has committed a questionable professional practice in the past — allowing a disturbed patient to go free and murder a pregnant girlfriend — and soon enough, all people who still blame him for the incident wind up dead. Is Michael taking advantage of his famously homicidal new patient? Or is Catherine Tramell, who's already aroused the suspicion (and nothing else?) of Detective Roy Washburn (David Thewlis), simply toying with her psychiatrist, and using him as research for her next novel? Just like the first Basic Instinct, BI2 throws in a last-minute suspect, employing the same, much celebrated technique of clues that implicate both parties.

But by that point, it's impossible to care. Directed with professional blandness by Michael Caton-Jones — his 1989 Scandal was a classier plunge into the depths of seamy London — the movie flatlines whenever Stone isn't hamming it up on screen. More than anything else, Basic Instinct 2 gives you an appreciation of Douglas's grizzly magnetism: Morrissey, a veteran British standby, is too much of a straightedge to carry the new film between Stone's appearances, leaving the more eccentric Thewlis and Charlotte Rampling (as Michael's colleague) to pump air into the screenplay's vacuous center. Unlike Verhoeven, Caton-Jones refuses to sneer at his characters; given the first film's blonde/brunette catfight, it's a particular tragedy that Rampling and Stone don't have more screen time together — with Rampling's composed, still-potent middle-aged allure a startling rebuke to Stone's exercised flaunting of the same.

The undercooked plot is complemented with hilariously overcooked art direction — an endless parade of designer cars, glass skyscrapers, hideously expensive apartments (an outdoor Jacuzzi?), and one psychiatrist's office that looks like an exposed-brick gymnasium. For all its willingness to risk ridicule with a poker-faced plot, the most fundamental problem with Basic Instinct 2 is that it provides the wrong kind of titillation. It's two hours of unremitting architecture porn.

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