Tangled up in this mid-summer hairball is a mystical Egyptian mau cat, killer makeup, heady confusion about female empowerment, and a Best Actress Oscar-winner down on all fours. Meow! That frantic scratching at the door means Catwoman, the much-sniped-about superheroine action flick about a feline ass-whupping avenger, wants in.
Meek Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) is an art-slave at the Hedare cosmetics empire, toiling under two mean bosses, George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and his frozen bitch-goddess of an aging model wife, Laurel (Sharon Stone). Too mild-mannered to spot the obvious "danger!" plot twist, Patience dutifully turns up at the company warehouse on a midnight errand. There, she overhears that the company's new product, Beau-line (inexplicably pronounced BEE-oh-LEEN), is disfiguring and dangerous; she is discovered and promptly murdered, only to wash up on a garbage pile where her lifeless form attracts the attention of a dozen or so swamp cats.
One cat climbs onto Patience, and rather than suck the life out of her (as cats reputedly are wont to do), this pussycat exhales right into Berry's parted lips, reviving her. Thanks, tuna-breath!
This crafty feline then leads Patience to a freaky middle-aged cat lady (or, as she's coded in the film, a bitter, feminist academic, same difference), Ophelia (Frances Conroy), who lays some news on her twitchy guest: The bad news is -- you're dead; the good news is -- you're now Catwoman.
Ophelia fills Patience's head with claptrap about the "duality in women" and how "catwomen follow their own desires." Patience is a quick study: She caresses a cat mask and intones, "Freedom is power." Plus, this explains all her recent weird behavior: hissing, sleeping curled up on a high shelf, and shotgunning canned fish (the filmmaker misses an opportunity to show Berry licking herself).
In the great tradition of superheroes, Patience makes her own costume -- a combination push-up bra/bandolier and skintight pants ripped right up to her Brazilian wax job. With her shapely bare ass thus hanging 10 and her newly freed bronzed bosoms heaving, Catwoman sets out into the night to ... do something.
Unfortunately, Catwoman's role is never clearly defined: She doesn't become a generalized crime-fighter spurred by life's injustices (her few noble acts are situational); her chief raison d'etre is settling an old office score. Oh, and saving all the bone-ignorant cosmetics-using women of the world from themselves (while wearing a lot of makeup herself). On one pursuit of justice, Catwoman slinks into a nightclub, where she performs a bump-and-grind number with a whip that sets the cause of empowered women and freethinking cats back a couple decades.
Catwoman has its roots in a character created by DC Comics' Bob Kane, but the film's real antecedents are MTV and any number of opportunistic and hollow superhero flicks. In his American film debut, the French director with the uni-name Pitof, who has a background in digital imaging, delivers a flashy, popcorn-munching spectacle that is woefully uninspired. Even the fights are pointless, since Catwoman possesses unrealistic and unmatched powers -- she can fly, leap, scratch and perform any number of CGI maneuvers, while the men in her clutches just wet their pants.
The film's ethos is stitched together with conflicting pop psychology drawn from fantasy: The "I'm-good-and-bad" purr from women is something men desire, and "bad" in that context never means putting his flat, worthless ass out on the street, being less than spectacular in bed or, I dunno, blowing shit up for kicks. "Bad" mostly means wearing a bra in public (but, really, only if you have the figure for it).
Yet Catwoman isn't above grand larceny: Her diamond claws are a nice touch, aren't they? Diamonds really are a girl's best friend, and the modern (cat)woman doesn't need a man to buy them when she can just steal them for herself. You go, girl! Truly, for female-positive messages, search elsewhere. Besides Stone's mean-old-hag-at-40 and the pathetic cat-lady, there's only a sex-starved chunky gal pal; remember, our take-no-prisoners heroine is dead.
It all culminates in a showdown of which only a roomful of nervous men could ever conceive: the unpleasant sight of two beautiful, powerful women -- engaged in full-on hand-to-paw combat -- pummeling each other in the face, as huge blown-up photographs of impassive models gaze on. When Stone goes crashing through her own super-sized visage, I could already hear DVDs of the future pausing, as legions of her campy fans shriek in delirium.
OK, so Catwoman isn't Shakespeare, but even if we accept the inevitable -- that a scantily clad Berry gyrating in her underwear while wielding a whip is why we buy a ticket -- then dammit, give it to us. What is a connoisseur of the hyper-sexualized female form to make of all this rapid editing, whoosh and zoom, and artificially generated bits and pieces of sinew?
Catwoman is just a hyper-mess that can't even get its story straight: It's a pro-cat film with a "furs by Fendi" credit; an anti-make-up screed delivered by Halle Berry, Revlon's longtime spokesmodel; an action flick comprised of tiny clips of bam! and pow!; and a superhero for women's rights in ass-less pants and high heels. Hopefully, we beseech the ancient temple cats of Ra, it is also the last we'll see of Catwoman.