Friday, August 21, 2009

Don't Mess with Beyonce

Once upon a time, some critics called the television show "In Living Color" the "black Saturday Night Live," even though it came on Sundays and wasn't aired live, on account of it being a comedy sketch show in which most of the performing cast was black. I'm not entirely sure, but I'll bet that label really pissed the creators of "In Living Color" off.

The movie Obsessed could be called "the black Fatal Attraction," and it probably was, because the media never met a convenient label it didn't like--just look at how many movies over the years have been described as "Die Hard on / in a bus/boat/airplane/house/etc." But in this case, I doubt there was any angst or fuss. For one thing, the comparison is to a 20-year-old movie that became a cultural touchstone and still holds up today; "Saturday Night Live" is a touchstone as well, but also a warhorse franchise with a decidedly checkered resume. And Obsessed is a profit engine, a highly calculated piece of work, not a scrappy comedy show looking to forge a unique identity on a fledgling network. Obsessed was designed to open in theaters in that late-winter-to-early-spring lull in most major studio release schedules, after the Oscars but before the summer blitz, a low-cost venture built to turn a tidy profit with a couple or three decent earning weekends. It's organized entirely to move characters to one particular scene, which I'll get to in a bit. If the comparison to Fatal Attraction got more butts in seats, I'd imagine the makers of Obsessed were all for it.

Obsessed stars Beyonce Knowles (hereafter just Beyonce) as the wife of a high-profile executive (Idris Elba) who learns that an attractive temp worker (Ali Larter) at her husband's company has developed a dangerous--maybe even fatal--ahem, attraction to her man. Now, this being a different film, Elba's character never succumbs to temptation, like Michael Douglas did in Fatal Attraction. But Larter's character still attempts suicide, and there's a bit where she menaces Beyonce's kid, and there's a climactic confrontation at the end. Then again, most of those same beats also occurred in Play Misty For Me, so maybe Obsessed is really the black Play Misty, except that there's no late-night jazz radio DJ and dewy soft-core interlude in the woods. After all, Fatal Attraction wasn't much more than a riff on Play Misty with a mid-80s corporate sheen.

It's never really revealed what Elba's character does for a living -- something to do with stocks or bonds or portfolios or something --but it's clear that he's successful, because he drives a sleek Mercedes and the house he shares with Beyonce is full of rich dark wood and his office is all bright glass and stainless steel and he wears nice shirts and ties. Elba, after being so good and full of cool, coiled menace as Stringer Bell for three seasons of HBO's The Wire, pretty much just plays a guy here, and you can't really see the role demanding much of an acting stretch, but you can't blame him for that; after elevating the role of the drug dealer so well on TV, he surely didn't want to go there, and it doesn't seem that there are a lot of other good parts for black actors out there outside of Tyler Perry movies.

So Elba is just a smart, hardworking, and successful dude who runs into the wrong woman--maybe he kinda/sorta leads Larter on, but it's also pretty clear that no one who wasn't already a psycho would ever go as far as she does.

Like much of the movie itself, this is all a lot of preamble--what really matters is the catfight, the sequence I alluded to earlier, the money shot. The movie has to have some build up to it, but it dispenses with the buildup pretty efficiently. In Fatal Attraction, you kinda thought that Glenn Close and her witchy black eyeliner actually hated Michael Douglas when they first met, but here you know Larter is into Elba right off the bat. And when it comes, the fight is pretty good, as far as these things go. Yes, it goes on way too long, and in typical movie fashion, both women sustain blows that would have put either in the hospital long before the climax, but there are a couple of really good flurries between Larter and Beyonce, and Beyonce even goads Larter on at a couple of points, and I'm sure a lot of audiences ate that up. And it doesn't take itself as seriously as any part of Kill Bill. If catfights are your thing, this movie probably deserves a place on your shelf.

And give the writers some credit--I was almost certain that the mirror that happens to be in Elba and Beyonce's bedroom ceiling was gonna come into play at some point, maybe in a dream sequence in which Elba looks up at night and imagines himself in bed with Larter, or maybe somehow in the final fight with Larter getting showered in falling glass from it, but that never actually happens. Maybe in the Director's Cut.

The acting is OK, nothing special, but there really isn't much that actors can really do with roles this transparent. Beyonce was in Dreamgirls I think, but I don't really remember--all I really remember of that movie is its crazy split personality and abrupt shift from musical biopic to full-blown musical. But while Dreamgirls was a prestige grab that wound up working better for Jennifer Hudson than it did Beyonce, Obsessed is just a disposable sorta thriller, and she comes out no worse than unscathed. In fact, none of the cast (including Jerry O'Connell in character actor mode) embarrasses themselves, except for Larter, but that's because her character has to -- if she doesn't, there's no movie.

My first reaction to this movie wasn't positive, but in the end, I didn't hate it anywhere near as much as, say, Rob Zombie's remake / defiling of Halloween. While I won't look back on Obsessed with any particular fondness, I don't feel unclean.

And I learned that Beyonce can be one badass bitch when she wants to be.

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