In Sliver, which must be the 37th thriller in the last year to be hyped as ”steamy” (the actors steam up the screen! It’s a scene so hot the whole theater is filled with steam!), there is one genuinely provocative sequence. The heroine, a Manhattan book editor named Carly Norris (Sharon Stone), enters a secret back room in the apartment of the stud she has been dating and discovers a wall of gleaming black-and-white video monitors. The stud, Zeke Hawkins (William Baldwin), owns the building and has outfitted it with surveillance cameras that allow him to peer into every apartment. Day or night, he can watch people in their bedrooms, bathrooms, and living rooms as they eat, fight, make love, confess their health problems, molest their children.
Carly is appalled — and fascinated. At that moment, she realizes that Zeke is a sicko, and that she’d probably do well to run out of the room. Yet something holds her. Against her better judgment, she is seduced by the thrill of playing video voyeur, and for a few tingly minutes so are we. What Carly sees could easily provide a month’s worth of Oprah episodes: It’s an encyclopedia of sensationalistic bad behavior (doesn’t anyone in this building ever just sit on the couch watching TV?). The filmmakers — screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) and director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) — barely even try for the sort of subtly drawn-out real-life narratives that Hitchcock devised for Rear Window; we’re simply given a peeper’s quick fix. Nevertheless, the activity on those screens is so much more spontaneous and alive than anything else in Sliver that we’re grateful for the intrusion of disreputable ”reality,” anything to relieve the by-now moribund gamesmanship of the contemporary sex-thriller genre.
Does anyone remember when these movies were scary, or erotic, or when they even made sense? Scene for scene, Sliver isn’t incompetent — Noyce has directed it with smooth, gliding craftsmanship — yet the movie feels anonymous and benumbed. We’ve been through this terrain one too many times: the sexually hungry blond, the obsessive relationship that keeps erupting into gymnastically challenging sex, the generic stalker scenes, the meaningless enigma of the murderer’s identity. In Sliver, there are two contenders for psycho: Zeke, played by Baldwin as little more than a walking smirk, and an impotent novelist named Jack Landsford (Tom Berenger, tiresomely believable as a macho jerk). Halfway through, I realized I didn’t give a damn about who the killer actually was. When we find out, it’s nothing more than an arbitrary now-you-see-it jolt. The patched-together ending is so absurdly abrupt that you can practically feel the original wrap-up that was lopped off, like phantom pain from an amputated limb.
Playing a nice girl this time, Sharon Stone proves she’s more than a one-trick viper. Her Carly, recovering from a bad marriage, is meant to be a lonely, high-strung workaholic, and Stone knows how to hold the audience with her edgy control. She doesn’t make the mistake Madonna has made in movies of telegraphing her desire to be haughty and cherished. Still, for all of Stone’s skill, there’s something naggingly remote about her. She has the beauty and confidence of Grace Kelly without the warmth that made Kelly’s sexiness seem at once playful and glamorous. Sliver makes you wonder, Can Sharon Stone have an impact outside of mediocre sex thrillers — and can Hollywood remember how to make anything else? C