'Stranger' is less than perfect

A great thriller should be the model of simplicity, but 'Perfect Stranger' is often complicated just for the sake of being complicated.

What does it say about the availability of great roles for female actresses that Oscar-winner Halle Berry is starring in the pulp thriller "Perfect Stranger" within a week of two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank gamely grimacing through "The "Reaping"?

At least Swank manages to space out her "penny dreadfuls" with pictures such as "Million Dollar Baby." For Berry, the situation is worse: Since winning the Oscar for "Monster's Ball," the first African-American actress so honored, she has appeared in such fare as "Catwoman and "Gothika." "Perfect Stranger" is ostensibly more serious than those films. Berry plays Rowena Price, an investigative newspaper reporter who goes under cover to trap a suspected murderer. As part of her subterfuge, she turns herself into Katherine, a temp at the ad agency run by the supposed killer, Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). She also assumes a third identity on the Internet as Rocketgirl, and has a tryst with Hill online.

There's no good reason why an actor can't be great in a murder thriller – Hitchcock movies, for example, are littered with amazing performances. But "Perfect Stranger" is far from Hitchcock, and Berry, although she gets an A for effort, can't do much with the half-baked characterizations. As Rowena, she's overwrought and actressy; as Katherine, she's glossy and two-dimensional. At least her Rocketgirl is spunky.

The performance honors are stolen, instead, by Giovanni Ribisi, who plays Rowena's creepy computer-whiz associate, and by Willis, who demonstrates yet again his first-rate acting chops.

Director James Foley and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki throw in so many red herrings that at times "Perfect Stranger" is less a movie than a fish market. It all makes sense in the end, I suppose, but the pileup of false leads and flashbacks is exhausting even if you manage to understand it all.

A great thriller should be the model of simplicity. "Perfect Stranger," like so many other thrillers nowadays, is often complicated just for the sake of being complicated. This more-is-better approach isn't more, and it isn't better. Grade: B–

"Perfect Stranger" is Rated R for sexual content, nudity, some disturbing violent images, and language.

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