Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Flop Sweat; or, Sharon Stone and the Lost Career of Gold

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 7, 2006

Greetings, earthlings! I’ve been absent from the site for awhile because I moved into a new place this month! Quite a pain in the ass, but it was well worth it. The whole thing kind of came up suddenly, and I had to organize everything at the last minute. So needless to say, a lot of reviews I’d planned to write did not get written. But now I’m settling in and I should be back on track from here on out.

Here’s the thing: Sharon Stone fascinates me. Call me crazy.

Yes, last weekend saw the release of the long-awaited (by me and me alone) Basic Instinct 2: The Quickening, which has turned out to be the first big commercial and critical bomb of the year. To call it a disappointment is an understatement; there was apparently no one on Earth interested in seeing the further adventures of Catherine “Who Needs Panties?” Trammell, the aggressively bisexual villainess of Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 smash. It didn’t help, of course, that the movie is shockingly awful, the kind of lame, uninspired and just plain stupid sequel that makes you want to set your copy of the original on fire. BI-2 (oh, if only they’d called it that) is a horrendous, laughable mess that will most likely do for the careers of all involved what the atomic bomb did to Hiroshima. Even if the movie had been good or halfway decent though, I’m not convinced that anyone would have cared enough to buy a ticket.

What the hell happened? It could be that the times have simply changed a little too much in 14 years. See, I’m old enough to remember that brief moment in time when Sharon Stone was the hottest (in both senses of the word) actress in Hollywood. It’s important to note that she began her rise to stardom in the ‘80’s, a time when it seemed like just about anybody from Corey Feldman to Dolph Lundrgen could be on the A-list. She started out with a bit part in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (she’s the girl on the train) and worked her way up to supporting roles in mostly forgettable films (including Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing, which I’ve heard she doesn’t include on her resume). From there, she showed up in the Raiders of the Lost Ark knockoffs King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold for schlocky Cannon Pictures, and then co-starred with everyone from Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy 4) to Steven Seagal (Above the Law) to Carl Weathers (Action Jackson). If that’s not paying your dues the hard way, I don’t know what is.

But it was the two films she did with Dutch madman Verhoeven that catapulted her into the stratosphere of true stardom. First there was Total Recall, in which she made a considerable impression as the initially loving and supportive, then duplicitous and evil wife who inspired the classic Arnold one-liner “consider that a divorce”. Stone not only gave a convincing performance in both guises, she stood toe-to-toe with Schwarzenegger and believably kicked his ass. That was pretty impressive stuff in 1990, don’t kid yourselves.

Then there was Basic Instinct, the crotch shot heard ‘round the world. It’s hard to remember now what a genuine sensation this movie caused back then. Even before it was released, there were rumors (most likely planted by the studio) that Stone and co-star Michael Douglas had actual penetration during the sex scenes (an idea that seemed incredibly naïve and ridiculous even then, but some people apparently fell for it). Then when the movie actually came out, it was just massive, due in large part to the abundance of sex scenes in which Stone appeared fully nude. And that notorious interrogation scene, with the most infamous instance of leg-crossing in cinema history.

A lot of critics despised the movie, seeing its excesses as a bad omen for the future of Hollywood filmmaking. As usual, they missed the point entirely; Instinct was a funhouse mirror of a satire (albeit an unsubtle one), reveling in its sleaze while at the same time pointing its finger at the susceptible audience that ate up its gratuitous sex and cartoonish violence. Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas knew exactly what they were doing, crafting a DePalma-esque thriller plot as a deliberately flimsy excuse to push the envelope of MPAA-sanctioned screen material. It was pure exploitation, self-consciously glittery Hollywood trash, a “next level” response to the wealth-worshipping lowest-common-demoninator soap operas of the Reagan era. It was the world reflected by Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous gone totally insane, and it essentially marked the official end of the ‘80’s, whether we knew it or not at the time. Cleveland-born Eszterhas clearly despised these people and their reckless, amoral behavior, as well as the corrosive influence they had on everyone around them. (Verhoeven and Eszterhas would later reteam on Showgirls, a truly horrible movie for which I can offer no possible defense.) Not to mention that the movie essentially introduced the concept of female bisexuality to a mainstream (non-porn watching) audience, and chose not to soften it or apologize for it.

Sharon Stone was the perfect actress to embody the inherent danger of affluence without conscience. Then gorgeous, blonde and stacked like a brick shithouse, Stone played Catherine Tramell as the epitome of icy perfection and cold, calculated manipulation. She was Marilyn Monroe crossed with Hannibal Lector, appealing as much for her mesmerizing brilliance as for her shameless sexuality. She was the femme fatale redefined for the modern era, the kind of woman who could lead you straight to Hell and make you grateful for the trip. At a time when girl-next-door brunette Julia Roberts was “America’s Sweetheart” (sure, she played a hooker, but a reluctant one), Stone was the drop-dead blonde bombshell who could tear your heart out with a look and keep you coming back for more. Any attempt you made to resist her would just wind up drawing you further into her web. Catherine was pure evil, and you loved her all the more for it.

Stone, unfortunately, never quite reached those heights again. Despite another kick-ass performance in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, SS suffered from too many high-profile flops (Sliver, Intersection, Diabolique, Last Dance) and some kooky off-screen behavior (including an affair with a married producer) as well as earning (justifiably or not) a “diva” reputation. Her moment seemed to have passed, and around the turn of the century she was relegated to co-starring in low-budget indie films and playing “the wife” in genre pieces like Cold Creek Manor. She was still doing interesting work, sure, but nobody was seeing it. Trying to spoof her “bad girl” image by playing a villainess in the lousy Catwoman (she might have been perfect for the title role a decade earlier) only seemed to make things worse. Not to mention that she was getting older. For the last couple of years, she seemed to be achieving some success as a character actress in films like Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (in which she’s quite likable and appealing) and the upcoming Alpha Dog and Bobby.

That’s why it seems a rather perverse move for Stone to revisit the Catherine Tramell character now, close to a decade and a half later. She was 47 when she shot the sequel, significantly older and entering a new phase of her career. For her to try to make a “comeback” now seems rather desperate, a deliberate move to reclaim her former glory at a time when audiences and filmmakers clearly don’t seem interested in her as a lead actress. You almost can’t blame her for wanting to give it one last shot, and to be fair, the sequel had been in the works for quite a long time, held up by Carolco Pictures’ bankruptcy and re-organization as C2 Pictures, as well as a lawsuit filed by Stone against the producers when the movie failed to get off the ground a few years ago. But the final product is the ultimate evidence that it’s simply too late, the wrong movie at the wrong time.

Some have described the experience of watching BI-2 as a “trainwreck”, but I would consider it a case of watching a train arrive a decade too late. It seems like a film designed for the audience of 1992, rather than that of 2006. Stone and the filmmakers seem to want to exist in a vacuum, to act as if no time has gone by and the world has not changed. The effect is similar to that of a middle-aged lady who tries to dress and act like her teenage daughter, not realizing or caring how foolish she may look to everyone else.

It’s not my intention to be cruel here, but the Sharon Stone of age 47 is simply not the Sharon Stone of age 33. Is she still an attractive woman? Yes, absolutely. She looks amazing for her age, but you can’t help but include that caveat: for her age. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’d still jump into bed with her in a heartbeat, I won’t lie to you. But we’re supposed to believe she’s the same Catherine Tramell from the original movie: intensely alluring, hypnotically beautiful, “the fuck of the century”. Last century, maybe. She just can’t pull it off anymore. We just don’t see it. It’s not quite as extreme as Mae West trying to recapture her sexiness in her Seventies in Myra Breckinridge. But it’s not that far off either.

Choosing to present its lead character as the same Catherine from 14 years ago is just the first mistake Basic Instinct 2 makes. The writers seem to have missed the obvious here – wouldn’t it be more interesting to see how the character has changed over time? If you’re going to revisit a famous character so many years down the road, wouldn’t that person obviously have changed somewhat after all that time? Maybe she’d be more mellow, maybe she’d be bitter about her experiences. Her writing career might have dried up, she might have gotten married or divorced, maybe even had a child! Very few people are in the exact same place, emotionally at least, that they were in 14 years earlier. I’m not saying it never happens, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting character, does it? And if she is that emotionally stunted, wouldn’t it have been fascinating to explore that, rather than simply ask us to accept it at face value?

Of course, the entire story of the sequel makes no sense anyway, so that’s hardly the main concern for a thinking filmgoer. This time Catherine is in London, accused of the murder of a famous soccer star (she did it). A psychiatrist (British actor David Morrissey, who looks like a cross between Liam Neeson and Kevin Spacey) is assigned to evaluate her mental condition, which he does accurately. He testifies against her in court, but when she gets off for some inexplicable reason, she decides she wants him to be her shrink. Long story short, he gets involved with Catherine, and the people in his life start getting killed off. Shocker!

What’s insulting is not just that the story is virtually a carbon copy of the original, just transplanted to a different city. The writers expect us to believe that Michael falls for Catherine even though he should know better, and does know better. He knows exactly who she is and what she’s capable of. Her relationship with Nick “Shooter” Curran in the original was believable because he was just as fucked up as she was in his own way, and there was always some lingering doubt about her guilt. This time, we fucking know she’s a killer as well as a master manipulator, and Michael knows it too. Catherine is the kind of person who anyone with even a basic knowledge of psychology would run away screaming from, but he falls for her because the plot would fall apart if he didn’t. As if that wasn’t ridiculous enough, his friends and colleagues fall for her bullshit too, even though they’re originally smart enough to warn him away from her. Come on!

Even worse is how much the sequel feels neutered in its sexual content, especially compared to the original. In all fairness, the only way to top the original would be to include actual penetration, and we all know that’s not going to happen. And Stone’s nude scenes were obviously shot with strategic camera placement and lighting in mind. But for christ’s sake, the damn thing’s not even sexy. It’s not even decent jerk-off material. The writers obviously don’t have Eszterhas’ penchant for sleaze, and their idea of what’s taboo and shocking in 2006 is painfully lame. For instance, there’s a scene where Catherine goes to an orgy, and we see her having sex – with one guy. At an orgy! Yeah, that’s really pushing the boundaries. Christ, you can see dirtier stuff than that on a Girls Gone Wild video. Give me a break! I have no doubt that there will be an “Unrated Director’s Cut” DVD that will restore all the naughty stuff that “we couldn’t show you in theaters!” Trust me, it’s not worth it.

But in all honesty, the one thing that entered my mind most often while watching BI-2 was simply, “why am I watching this?” No, seriously, why? What does this movie have to offer us in 2006? Why do we need to see the continuing adventures of a conniving, deceitful, manipulating, cold-hearted nutcase way past her prime? As presented here, Catherine’s not so much a serial killer as a sociopathic megabitch. Michael is hardly her match, and we never get the sense that he asked for it or deserved it. He’s just her latest random victim, and watching her fuck him, then fuck him over is completely unsatisfying. Her pathological behavior just isn’t that fascinating the second time around. The writers throw in a bunch of pop-psychology nonsense and pseudo-noir pretensions, but it’s all window dressing to cover the fact that the movie’s not really about anything. We’re never given any reason to care. Stripped of Eszterhas’ class-warfare subtext and Verhoeven’s determination to shock at all costs, the sequel is just fucking boring.

And that, my friends, is the worst sin of all. The awful thing about Basic Instinct 2 is that there’s simply nothing to see here. The audiences who stayed away from it in droves were correct, even if they didn’t exactly know why. They subconsciously understood what the filmmakers and star didn’t – that 2006 is not 1992, that time has passed and the world has changed and moved on. Catherine Tramell is no longer shocking – the world is full of Catherine Tramells now. And they’re all on the Internet. You just can’t turn back the clock, no matter how hard you try. Something Sly Stallone should maybe keep in mind as he prepares new entries in his Rocky and Rambo series. Sometimes your time is up, and nobody gives a fuck.

That about covers it for now. As far as other recent films go, loved V for Vendetta, really liked The Inside Man and liked Slither (hopefully it’ll find its audience on DVD). I’ll be back soon with more reviews – really! Talk to you later.

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