Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Basic Double Feature Instinct

Although I was an unabashed 10-year-old movie buff in 1992, I somehow avoided ever seeing the most controversial wide release of the year. This wouldn’t be so shocking if said film in question wasn’t directed by all-time favorite Danish import.

Despite the blind spot on my cinema brain that was Basic Instinct, my desire to finally watch Sharon Stone uncross her legs had little to do with any real curiosity. No, of course it didn’t. Me being me, I mostly wanted to watch this movie so that I could freely venture into far darker territory: its decade late universally maligned sequel.

One thing at a time:

Basic Instinct: In sexy San Francisco, a blond furiously ice picks her lover to death while riding on to her own orgasm. The detective on the case is none other than Nick, a recovering alcoholic smoker cokehead who’s obviously going to fall back on the bad habits of the elite because he’s played by Michael Douglas, a fine actor who can kind of ONLY play the type of white collar miscreant. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The chief suspect is the victim’s steady lover Catherine Tramell, a Berkley educated psychology major who now writes erotic crime fiction. Unless you were raised amongst the Amish the early 1990s, you probably know that Tramell is played by a post-Total Recall/Scissors but pre-Everything Else Sharon Stone as a sex-loving bisexual maybe sociopath who loves Hermes scarves but hates all brands of underwear.

It doesn’t take long for Catherine to take to Nick like my cat takes to moths, toying with his life and eating one wing at a time before becoming confused by the fact that it doesn’t actually taste good. Okay, maybe that’s Joplin and not Catherine, but the point is, Catherine starts worming her way into Nick’s life, people in Nick’s life start dying, fingers are pointed, genitalia is fingered, and we get to see what perennial brunette Jeanne Tripplehorn might look like as a blond.

Basic Instinct was quite the hit in 1992, a surprise blockbuster that sparked as many dinner party conversations as it did parodies. Viewed 20 years after its debut, the film doesn’t live up to its “Can you believe that!” hype, yet hasn’t necessarily aged terribly. The controversy regarding its portrayal of homosexual and bisexual characters as murderous villains seems petty today. Yes, all of its non-straight characters might indeed be killers, but that's because EVERYONE in Basic Instinct has blood on their hands. There's nothing homophobic about; it's just that in 1992, so few films featured gay themes that any high profile hit was grounds for praise or protest.

But I digress. Basic Instinct is what it is: a tacky noir that tries a little too hard to be sexy, but still emerges as a trashy mildly good time nonetheless. That’s mostly due to the fact that director Paul Verhoeven knows how to have fun behind the camera, and while her later career has its roadblocks, Sharon Stone absolutely nails the role of a sex-crazed sociopath who never met a man (or woman) she couldn’t manipulate.

Basicker Instinct: Flash forward an inappropriate amount of years to 2008, when Sharon Stone apparently REALLY REALLY REALLY wanted to revive the role that made her famous. Of course, a character isn’t all it takes to make a sequel. There’s the tricky matter of a script, director, and leading man…none of which seems to be overly valued in Basic Instinct 2.

The film opens in cold, clinical London as Catherine, still blond and horny, crashes a luxury car into the river while her drugged out soccer star boyfriend du jour pleasures her to his death. Detective Angry David Thewlis suspects her immediately, but court ordered psychiatrist Michael considers her only a risk to herself.

And of course, his sanity and free life.

Just like Michael Douglas’ unlucky Nick, Michael gets ensnared in his new patient’s web of games.  It doesn’t take more than a few steamy sessions for his ex-wife’s sleazy lover who was—whaddya know!—writing an expose on Michael’s past to turn up strangled, for Michael’s past oversights as an irresponsible shrink to come to light, and for Catherine to insinuate herself in everything from a professional dinner party to his ex-wife’s bed.

In Basic Instinct, it was hard to keep your eyes off of Sharon Stone’s Catherine. The actress took hold of the character with just the right balance of open of sexiness and confidence that you could understand why men and women fell into her trap like lemmings.

In Basic Instinct 2, it’s STILL hard to keep your eyes off of Stone, but that’s more to do with wondering just how many virgins spilled their blood to keep her skin as firm as it was when Bill Clinton was on his first presidential campaign trail. Stone LOOKS amazing and can still wear a barely-there little black dress like a superstar, but her 21st century Catherine is no longer sexy: she’s just annoying.

“So. Is this where we’re gonna DO IT?” she purrs to Michael in his psychiatrist’s office with all the aggression of a kitten in anger management. Perhaps it was because she missed her old pal Paul Verhoeven, but Stone seems to channel Elizabeth Berkley’s Showgirls performance as inspiration for her over-the-top Catherine. What came off as sexy and daring in 1992 just feels forced and sad two decades later.

It doesn’t help that Catherine’s target is a pasty loaf of stale British scone bread. Actor David Morrissey doesn’t get a whole lot to work with but he also never finds anything extra to give. A scene that echoes Michael Douglas’ rough-sex rape-not-rape-cause-she-kinda-likes-it moment with Tripplehorn offers none of the shocking sexiness of the prior film. In this case, Michael brings home a colleague to have old fashioned missionary sex with her…until he spots Catherine’s picture on her latest book jacket sitting on his nightstand and then…and then…TURNS HER OVER TO TAKE HER FROM BEHIND.

I know, we should all be blushing. It’s positively INSANE.

And that’s the limit of Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction’s risk addiction. Yes, there’s an orgy, but somehow, it’s boring. I never thought I’d have to use ‘orgy’ and ‘boring’ in the same sentence twice in one year, but thanks to this and the otherwise good Night of the Scarecrow, it seems I checked one thing off my bucket list.

Directed by Rob Roy maker Michael Caton-Jones, Basic Instinct 2 could have been something truly memorable in a starstruck trashtacular Wild Things vein. Instead, it has this false confidence that it’s the sexiest thing of all time because its lead gets naked and constantly talks about it. But as Showgirls proved in such a more entertaining fashion, sex isn’t sexy when it’s shoved in your face.

Had Basic Instinct 2 understood that, it could have either a) finessed its dialogue or, more wishfully b) understood that it had the potential to be a camp classic. As it stands, I don’t see anyone hosting a midnight screening or dressing up like Catherine Tramell 2 for costume parties anytime soon. It’s just not fun enough.

High Notes
The first film features a pretty nifty car chase through a fairly crowded country road, the kind of car action that could actually HAPPEN behind the wheel of normal (if risk-loving) human beings

In 2, there’s one shiny spot and that’s Charlotte Rampling’s wise therapist. Without ever hiking up her designer skirt, Rampling is somehow more alluring and fascinating than a full frontal Sharon Stone

Low Notes
Aside from everything else about 2008 Catherine Tramall, the fact that the woman can’t read a No Smoking sign is just obnoxious. Step into MY office and light that cigarette bitch. I dare you.

Lessons Learned
Playing games goes with a degree in psychology

London streets are completely empty after dark

As you approach a very tense man who’s waving a gun with crazy in his eyes, try to avoid reaching into your pocket, even if you just want to return his keys or check for your parking ticket. Some gun-waving lunatics might get ideas that you don’t have time to disprove

Coke and Pepsi aren’t the same things

When your boyfriend is found murdered, the smartest thing you can possibly do is to call your ex-husband with a grudge before the police. Seriously, why would you even think about doing things the other way around?

The Winning Line
“Even Oedipus didn’t see his mother coming.”
I’m sure this is supposed to sound erotic. Really it just leaves me feeling bad for Jocasta’s sex life

Basic Instinct is a recommend, simply because of its place in pop culture. The DVD is loaded with extras, including making-of featurettes and an enjoyable commentary from the always fun Verhoeven and his Director of Photography, future Twister and Speed director Jan De Bont. Its sequel is ALSO heavy on the special features, but suffering through the main feature is a taller order than you might think. I ADORE bad movies, but Basic Instinct 2 commits the ultimate sin of awful cinema: it’s boring.


  1. I'm a little more ancient than you E, but BASIC INSTINCT propelled me into my Ph.D. (and academic career), and I'll always have a mushy spot for Sharon Stone. That being said, every word you utter about BI 2 is truth, and that film is just painful. But your insights are smart and hilarious, and I'm just delighted that you finally found this tiny little blip of cinema. Thanks for taking the time!

  2. I think the first one is actually a pretty well-written and very well-directed little mystery flick with a fabulous score. (still one of my favorites)

    The second one is a giant pile of shit, but who couldn't see that one coming when they announced it a decade later?

  3. Thanks Dark Iris! Great finding your site too. I can never get enough thoughtful discussions about Mad Men!

    Kangas: I have a blind spot when it comes to Verhoeven, so of COURSE it's well-directed because that man can do no wrong. I'm not a big Eszterhas fan. I think his material only seems to work when, well, directed by Verhoeven. The writing worked for me because Stone & Douglas knew what to do with it, and Verhoeven just has that proper sleazy touch. You know, I failed to mention the score but it REALLY does elevate the material.

  4. Yo Emily, I've just seen Firestarter 2: Rekindled, and it is MUCH better than the first one! It's nearly three hours, yet it's not boring like 1 at all! (it does have some hilariously incompetent flashback scenes though) Also, it actually would have been eligible for The Shortening, because while Charlie's grown up, her opponents other than Malcolm McDowall are a group of mutant kids!

  5. Hmmmm. I had it on my queue forever but never got to it after being so disappointed by the Carrie miniseries. But incompetent flashbacks, Malcolm McDowell, AND mutant kids means I just may have to reconsider for this February!

  6. Charlotte Rampling... Just say that name again. Charlotte Rampling. Oooooooo, what a babe-a-licious vixen. I don't know how she never gets top billing in movies because I'm always surprised when I see her, and my reaction is always, "Hey, COOL, it's that super-sexy lady!" She's like a walking billboard for just how sexy women over 60 can be. Clearly I need to go back and watch "The Verdict" again...

  7. As for why the flashbacks are bad (funny bad), it's because, 1) The bad acting of the actors playing Charlie and her dad (not Drew Barrymore and David Keith), 2) The scenes being very different to what happened in the first movie, and 3) When Charlie shoots fire at McDowall, he literally yells, "FLAMES!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO"! haha!

  8. I hear ya Trever! She's one of those women that just has it, and knows precisely how to use it.

    Chris: February can't get hear soon enough!