Minefield, with claws embedded: Idris Elba as Derek Charles and Ali Larter as Lisa, the temporary worker infatuated with him in "Obsessed", directed by Steve Shill. 
The film opened last Friday in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Screen Gems)

A Basic Instinct: Temporary Homewrecker, Permanent Heartbreaker
By Omar P.L. Moore/  SHARE
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

With all the energy of a feral being Ali Larter stalks, skulks, slithers and schemes as Lisa, the skanky temporary worker who won't take no for an answer in the search for love because delusions of grandeur have taken her.  Infiltrating herself into the life of Derek Charles (Idris Elba), L.A. finance company Gage Bendix's executive vice president, Lisa, as played by Miss Larter, is the one-note nightmare of "Obsessed", which opened this past Friday and grossed $28.6 million to top the box office in North America.  Miss Larter's Lisa, just steps away from the self-demeaning Christina Ricci character in "Black Snake Moan" (2007) however, isn't the biggest problem with Steve Shill's film, which has plenty of potholes in its celluloid yet isn't nearly as bad as many critics have posited.   

"Obsessed", one mess of a script, is at least watchable not just for the tense, taut and titillating conclusion that its overlong and muddled missive eventually brings, but also because of Beyonce Knowles, who as homemaker and mother Sharon, wife of Derek, is the only fully-realized character in the entire film.  Written by David Loughery (also an executive producer here along with Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Ms. Knowles), "Obsessed" makes utter fools of its smartest characters.  The audience knows that Derek is wise, yet the screenplay Mr. Elba has to work with constrains his character and defies common sense.  Before long, Derek, to whom Sharon was a former assistant at Gage prior to their nuptials, is caught in an albeit plausible situation with the flaunty, flirty Lisa but a couple of unbelievable scenarios see things spin out of control.  Not unlike the typical American corporate environment, Gage Bendix is a workplace where men rule the roost (no female executives in sight) and male chauvinism abounds.  Actors Jerry O'Connell (who here looks like a combination of a younger Tom Cruise and Alfred E. Neumann) and Bruce McGill, who plays Joe, are ringleaders in Gage's circus of inappropriate comments and behavior, yet the familiar double standard along gender lines ensues after Lisa makes waves during a Christmas party. 

Lisa doesn't necessarily want Derek as much as she wants the one thing she implicitly craves: a family.  Infatuated with the possibilities of a life beyond herself, she maneuvers her way into the most cherished possessions of the Charles household, an upper middle-class setting in a brand spanking new house in the heart of an affluent Los Angeles community.  Needy, vampish and crying out for big-time help, of Lisa one is compelled to ask: where on earth has she come from?  Like Eleanor Rigby, Lisa is lonely and church certainly isn't her grounding.  Lisa has been dropped into a sexist corporate bubble and like a rat she sinks her claws into the most high-profile person in the firm.  What a smart move, eh?  (Smarter still are Derek's responses.)

The film's only astute (or perhaps not) move is in the lack of racial politics and nuance that colors "Obsessed".  Unlike Neil LaBute's "Lakeview Terrace", Mr. Shill omits explicit mentions of race (ala "Things We Lost In The Fire") so as to make his film a thriller not a social sciences critique.  The specter of race and its dynamics in corporate America are clearly beneath the surface in the way Derek is queried about questionable situations (ala the 1991 Mike Tyson-Desiree Washington case) and in the conversation between two white women about Derek.  The latter conversation between two women is real, but because one of the women is an inept police detective (Christine Lahti), the interaction is also ridiculous and needless.  (Many of the interactions are.)

On a historical level, the days in America where a white woman (especially in the South) would say that a black man raped her when in reality either consensual sex or no sex occurred, only to ensure the death of that man, aren't all that bygone, and "Obsessed" avoids going to such explosive areas except suggestively via one scene of dialogue.  Films like John Singleton's "Rosewood" (1997), based on a true story, and real-life episodes (Charles Stuart killing his own wife in Massachusetts in the 1980s and blaming a black man for it; Susan Smith killing her two children by drowning them in South Carolina in the 1990s and blaming a black man for it) are not too far from the viscera of America's race-conscious legacy, and most recently "Spinning With Butter" attempted to deal with similar dynamics of race and racism in America.

The final skewer in what some will find to be an entertaining film is the utilization of Beyonce Knowles.  An accomplished singer, songwriter and rapidly rising actress on the big screen, Ms. Knowles is everywhere in "Obsessed" (she can be heard singing on the film's soundtrack on more than one occasion), yet is almost nowhere at all as a complete character for much of the film except the third act, where we see the totality of Ms. Knowles' Sharon.  Mr. Shill spends the first part of his wildly uneven and abruptly tone-shifting film showcasing Miss Larter's character's physicality and then her instability, while Ms. Knowles's physicality is glimpsed a little more only later in the film, while her Sharon character has been seen throughout as a stable mother -- all to whet audience appetites in preparation for a male fantasy smackdown that would be inevitable.  Mr. Loughery's script momentarily betrays even Ms. Knowles' character at a key moment.  The superstar is human, yes -- but anything in service of a plot that defies logic.

Anyone who has seen "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle", "The War Of The Roses", "Fatal Attraction", "The Temp", "The Crush", "Disclosure" or any number of similar films will recognize each in "Obsessed", which continues a long tradition of films where the police are the most inept and late arriving public protectors they can be.  They are never any help in these types of thrillers, only a complication.  The plot and the structure of "Obsessed" needed to be policed much better than the lone detective's investigation of Lisa and Derek's sketchy scenarios.

"Obsessed" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual material including some suggestive dialogue, some violence and thematic content.  The film's duration is one hour and 45 minutes -- and feels like two and a half hours. 


Related: When one obsession leads to another

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