Rich Man, Poor Film

Too many thrillers start out like gangbusters only to fall apart in the final act. When one finally happens along that ends more cleverly than it opens, the temptation arises to praise it on that basis alone. The Rich Man's Wife is such a film. The sad truth is, however, that the beginning and middle acts of this listless letdown are so awful that the comparatively sly denouement can't begin to redeem what came before it.

Writer-director Amy Holden Jones is best known as the author of the Indecent Proposal screenplay. Like that overheated chunk of cinematic junk food, The Rich Man's Wife feels more like a TV movie than a major-studio theatrical release. In her directorial debut, 1982's Slumber Party Massacre, Jones at least knew better than to take herself too seriously and mixed camp humor with gruesome slasher-movie conventions to partially cover for her inability to stage a scene, create a character, evoke atmosphere, or build suspense -- to camouflage her complete ineptitude with the basics of filmmaking, in other words. Prior to The Rich Man's Wife, Jones directed 1987's Maid to Order; with any luck at least another nine years will pass before some misguided studio grants Jones an opportunity to try again.

To be fair, the film offers a few unexpected pleasures such as a clever line here or an inspired supporting performance there, but the good parts all circle about the periphery of a threadbare central story rendered duller still by Jones's limp direction and a bloodless star turn by Halle Berry. Maybe the producers figured that the ex-spouse of a real-life rich man -- Berry recently divorced baseball superstar David Justice -- would bring authenticity to the role. Berry fools them, however. Fetching as ever, the actress offers little more than her physical attractiveness, and even much of that lies hidden beneath a Mary-Tyler-Moore-meets-the-Supremes wig. (I'm a terrible judge of these things; it could be a really bad 'do that merely looks like a wig.) Whatever sits atop Berry's head, it does nothing for her except create the impression that the actress wants to look like Vanessa Williams.

Berry plays Josie Potenza, an unhappy homemaker who offhandedly confides to a stranger in a bar that she wouldn't mind attending the funeral of her wealthy cheating louse of a husband, if only his death could be arranged. Unfortunately for Josie -- but more so for Mr. Potenza -- said stranger, played with dry wit by Laws of Gravity star Peter Greene, happens to be Cole Wilson, a homicidal maniac who develops a killer crush on the married woman. Cole takes it upon himself to relieve Mr. Potenza (Christopher McDonald) of his mortal coil in brutal, cold-blooded fashion. The film gets an edgy laugh out of Cole's taunting his victim. "Oh, that's gotta hurt," he deadpans as he pumps bullets into the dying man. "Why don't you just die, already?"

Two veteran homicide cops -- one black, one white -- investigate Mr. Potenza's murder. The white cop suspects Josie's complicity. The black cop accuses his colleague of racism. But filmmaker Jones has no intention of developing this unexpected and potentially interesting tangent; she plays the race card for one cheap laugh and then quickly drops it. Meanwhile, Cole begins to blackmail Josie, threatening that if she goes to the cops he'll claim she hired him to knock off the old man. You can pretty much guess the rest, with the possible exception of the final twist, which feels arbitrary and derivative of both Diabolique and The Usual Suspects, but which at least comes as a bit of a surprise.

The moral of the story is that money doesn't buy class. Amy Holden Jones may have earned some movie industry clout based on the obscene revenues Indecent Proposal generated, but that doesn't make her writing any better or her directing any less amateurish. The Rich Man's Wife wants to pass itself off as a blue-blood motion picture thriller, but it won't fool anybody. This Wife is really just a glorified TV movie that lucked into a Hollywood sugar daddy.

The Rich Man's Wife. Written and directed by Amy Holden Jones; with Halle Berry, Peter Greene, Christopher McDonald, and Clive Owen.

 
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