Julia Roberts’ first starring role since Pretty Woman couldn’t be more of a contrast, but there’s a crucial link between the two. Sleeping With the Enemy (R) asks the question: What happens when a beautiful young woman finds and marries her Prince Charming — and he turns out to be a psychotic monster? The movie, a desperate-to-be-Hitchcockian thriller, casts Roberts as Laura Burney, whose husband, the suave and presentable Martin (Patrick Bergin), is actually a vicious, crazy, wife-beating slug.

Martin’s true nature was revealed to Laura shortly after their honeymoon. That was three years and seven months ago, and she has thought of nothing but escape since. But Martin is so in love with his ”princess” (as he calls her), so unable to imagine life without her, that if she applies for a restraining order or tries in any way to break free of the marriage, he’ll kill her. His ”love” is a form of terrorism. Still, as long as Laura acts the part of the adoring yuppie wife, cooking Martin exquisite meals, accompanying him (in sexy evening wear) to his business parties, and making sure that everything in their fabulous Cape Cod beach house, from the bathroom towels to the cans in the cupboard, is in absolute order, she can stay on his good side.

Sleeping With the Enemy certainly has the bare bones of a tantalizing thriller. The whole notion of a ”perfect” marriage held together by coercion contains a rich undercurrent of satire. Hitchcock would have gone to town with it — and, in fact, he did when he made Suspicion, with Cary Grant as a charmer who may or may not have been trying to murder his wife. Sleeping With the Enemy, though, offers zilch in the way of either satire or psychological suspense. The relationship is so weakly drawn that we can’t even tell whether Laura is simply playing along with Martin in order to save her life or if there’s an element of emotional complicity in her behavior. There’s just the one, thin situation of a woman threatened. The movie, which boasts as many implausibilities as it does twists and turns, is about how Laura finally escapes, faking her own drowning and moving to a small, pastoral town in the middle of Iowa. Inevitably, Martin discovers her ruse and catches up with her — at which point it’s bogeyman time.

The director, Joseph Ruben, has made some witty and expertly crafted suspense films (The Stepfather, True Believer, the overlooked Dreamscape). Here, though, he’s working with a script (by Ronald Bass) that’s a piece of deadwood. For the movie to be anything more than a mechanical stalker thriller, we need to experience Martin as a teasingly ambiguous figure — frightening, yes, but attractive as well. We need to see him as a kind of male equivalent of the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction: a quasi-sympathetic monster whose dementia is really a twisted form of emotional pain.

Instead, he’s just a repulsive psycho. In an early scene, Martin socks Laura in the head for disobeying him. The movie plays off Roberts’ status as America’s sweetheart: How can you look at a man who would whack Julia Roberts and feel anything but loathing? The Irish-born actor Patrick Bergin gave a flat performance as the Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton in Mountains of the Moon, and I was eager to see how he’d do in a modern setting. Well, he’s just as flat. Bergin has a pasty complexion, dead eyes, and a high, inexpressive voice. He’s like a desiccated mannequin come to life, and there’s nothing juicy about his malevolence.

Laura takes her Greyhound bus to freedom and falls for the tender advances of Ben (Kevin Anderson), who teaches drama at the local college. But she’s so spooked by her marriage that she can’t let herself go. Roberts has a terrific scene in which Laura tries to make love to Ben on the stairway. We can see that as soon as she starts to let desire in, fear quickly follows. The filmmakers, obviously aware of what sold some of last year’s top movies, are trying to push our romantic buttons. But aside from the delicate anxiety that Roberts brings to the role, the relationship between Laura and Ben feels like something out of a made-for-TV movie. It’s all just delaying the inevitable.

Through a series of bald contrivances (the most glaring involves a telltale wedding ring), Martin finally catches up with his beloved. Ruben shoots the when-will-he-pop-out-of-the-shadows stuff like an ace. He always knows just where to put the camera, and by the end Laura has been through so much hell that we can’t help but root for Martin’s demise. Yet it’s a hollow sort of rooting.

As an actress, Roberts has more than a great smile. She’s alive on screen — you can practically feel her pulse. But someone should have realized that audiences would be on her side even if every single moment of a movie weren’t calculated to put them there.

Sleeping with the Enemy
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