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You are a cat! A cat! Give me a meow! Oh, yes, bay-bee, zat is zee whay! Give me a little more, how you say, cat! Knead! Zat's it, zat's it...now wave zat in my face! Oh, yes, you naughty girl…

If that sounds more like a fashion shoot than actual film direction, it would only be apropos. French director Pitof makes his American film debut with Catwoman, and gives it all the emotional depth of one of Halle Berry's Revlon commercials. Every frame revels in the beauty of its subjects, good-looking people that all have the uncanny ability to strike a pose in repose, no matter the situation. But all they are is pose.

To balance it out, Pitof does force comedic actress Alex Borstein into the kind of role Rosie O'Donnell used to take. Thanks to her impersonations of Rosie on Mad TV, there's a kind of irony at work there.

Catwoman thrives on ironies everywhere, pretty much using up the world's supply in the first ten minutes. Buried somewhere beneath its leaden fog might be an interesting satire on our culture's obsession with youth and beauty, and the terrible things a company might do to dominate it. But the central flaw of the film lies in the overlaying of superhero action that is meant to dazzle us, not amuse us.

From the opening credits, it's clear that a pretentiousness permeates the production. A clever Photoshop artist has altered various historical paintings of women to make them look like past lives of the felonious feline. Worse, all that information gets repeated by a loopy but nicely made-up Frances Conroy as Ophelia, a mysterious cat lady who knows all about the secrets of the Catwomen, but sadly, not Selina Kyle.

Yes, Berry actually plays Patience Phillips, a mousy graphic designer for Hedare, a multi-million dollar cosmetics company on the verge of launching its new skin cream, Beau-liene. With less than a week to go, George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) chooses to replace his company's spokesmodel, wife Laurel (Sharon Stone), with a much younger girl. Tragically for George, he fails to take Joan Crawford impersonations for the warning signs that they are. Adding insult to Laurel's injury, it seems that wherever she goes in their headquarters, somebody is taking down her old pictures.

Somehow, cats get involved once Patience discovers the dark secret of the skin cream, and a superheroine is born. The problem is that the whole explanation is, well, kind of dumb. Producer Denise DiNovi witnessed it work in Tim Burton's Batman Returns. Forgive that this is a different character with a similar origin, but you cannot ignore that even in the Burton film, it made no sense. But Burton moved past it with characteristic élan, diverting your attention away from the utter ridiculousness of the situation.

Pitof has no such skill. He plays it with deadly seriousness, and unintentional comedy erupts when he puts Berry through the paces of suddenly have all the proportionate powers of a cat. That's right. She can do all the things a cat can do: land on her feet at all times, bend herself into impossible positions, utilize amazing reflexes and groom herself by cutting her hair at super-speed.

Also, few people know this, but cats are inherently experts with a bullwhip.

Though Pitof gets very tricky and fluid with his shots, he rarely lets them soar. More than one sequence gets its impact undone by nausea-inducing quick cuts from editor Sylvie Landra. It's too conscious a choice to be anything other than Pitof's orders, and it undercuts the emotion of several scenes.

For a brief moment, you might feel hope as Catwoman competes with jewel thieves in a delirious fight. At this point, she wears a costume somewhere between the classic Julie Newmar look and the one that Selina Kyle sports in the comics. But it's an all-too brief (and probably unintentional) sop to fans before everything spins out of control.

Only Stone seems to know how lightweight the proceedings really are; at least she chooses to have fun with it. If someone wanted to really put the actress in a role forcing her to face the effects of growing older, she could put up quite a fight. Not that she isn't still incredibly attractive, but it's clear that something about the arc of her character struck home, even if it ended up being laughable.

Right now, the pain is too strong, but in about six months, Catwoman could turn into the kind of film that causes groups of friends to get together and play drinking games. Behind the fun, though, is the tragedy that this movie thinks it's so incisive and important.

Strike that. Berry's weird high-riding cat hat? That's the real tragedy.


Derek McCaw

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