that's twice, halle. swordfish marked the most gratuitous display of breasts ever by a woman who already had an established career in movies. Now comes Monster's Ball. Arty and serious and dripping with quality. And, sure enough, the clothes come off. There's Billy Bob and you flopping all over the chesterfield in one of the most excruciating -- and affecting -- love scenes in years.
But his willie stays shrouded, Halle, while you give us the full backstage pass.
But we understand. We feel for you. And no matter whether it's a crass action movie or a high-toned drama, we know the outcome is the same -- skin wins market share. It's a Gwyneth world out there, so a sister's got to do whatever it takes.
In Monster's Ball, Halle Berry plays the wife of a death row inmate (Sean P. Diddy Combs). After his execution, she's left poor, desperate and struggling to care for a son she despises half the time because he's fat.
Through a series of chance encounters, she comes to know the man who supervised her husband's execution (Billy Bob Thornton). He's been trapped for years between his domineering, racist father (Peter Boyle) and his disappointingly sensitive son (Heath Ledger). This prickly, helpless -- but gorgeous -- black single mother offers him love for the first time. So he hides the truth from her.
Monster's Ball comes garlanded with glowing reviews for Thornton and Berry, and choral acclaim for its courage. Whenever I hear the word "courage," I reach for my revolver.
It does surpass most current American films, though, especially in the time it gives to the unfolding relationship. In fact, both the script and Marc Forster's direction court comparisons to European cinema. The languid pace, Thornton's restrained acting and the Tangerine Dreamy score all give Monster's Ball a German feel.
But although it's downbeat and melancholy, Monster's Ball is never actually reflective. It's like a photocopy of a Wim Wenders film.
The events that bring Thornton and Berry's characters together feel schematic; each has lost family. And too many of the major plot turns are awkwardly handled. One crucial sequence plays like a pale reminder of All About My Mother.
So Monster's Ball works best as a character piece. Both Thornton and Berry get to play heartless and wounded, needful and numb. And we get to watch their tentative romance play out in what, pointedly, still looks like a slave society.
All good. And yet, Halle, your looks do get in the way. A dirt-poor rural black mother with a super-toned model's physique can partly be explained by rage at her son's obesity. But only partly.
Those movie-star teeth and that movie-star body can't be disguised. (Not that this film tries too hard.) All those scenes of you walking country roads in improbably stylish, snug outfits just look like a Maxim trash-chick photo spread. It undermines that gritty honesty you're all going for.
The context for Monster's Ball asks its audience to respect the courage of a beautiful woman downplaying her looks. While it's not as noxious as the fat-suit spectacle in Shallow Hal and America's Sweethearts, it still demands that Berry talk out of two sides of her mouth. Want me because I'm beautiful. Love me because I look fabulous playing plain. email@example.com
MONSTER'S BALL directed by Marc Forster, written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, produced by Lee Daniels, with Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger and Peter Boyle. 111 minutes. Opens Friday (March 1). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 70. Rating: NNN