Gwyneth Paltrow, an uneven but promising actress, has nothing to do in Andrew Davis' snoozy, slack thriller "A Perfect Murder" -- but, oh, her clothes! Or, specifically, the way Paltrow wears them. The "costumes" in "A Perfect Murder" -- pulled together by Ellen Mirojnick -- are regular street wear, the kinds of things an exceptionally well-dressed city woman would wear to work. A straight skirt with a high slit (damn Dariusz Wolski's murky cinematography for not allowing us a better glimpse of the zipper), a slim dark-blue turtleneck that recasts Paltrow's willowy torso as the stem of an exotic flower, black suede high-heeled boots that, when Paltrow unzips them, collapse into silky folds.
They're somewhat conservative garments -- dark clothes, rich-girl clothes -- but they're the only things that offer any sensuality in Davis' picture. One of the pleasures of seeing rich characters -- as Paltrow's is here -- in the movies is watching them walk around in luxurious garments like these. (Movie audiences during the Depression knew this; they couldn't get enough of those plush furs and Travis Banton liquid-satin gowns.) On screen, Paltrow wears her clothes stunningly, and if that sounds like faint praise, consider how few contemporary actresses have as much presence and elegance. Put cute Sandra Bullock in Galliano, and she's -- well, cute Sandra Bullock in Galliano. Put Paltrow in Galliano, and she's a creature from another planet, beamed down from a place far, far away where people know better than to wear sneakers with a business suit. It's one way of bringing a slightly different dimension to a character -- an actor can slip an air of haughtiness or vulnerability or treachery into a scene just by the way he or she moves in an outfit. Even if the costumer is 75 percent responsible for the overall effect, only the actor can complete it.
"A Perfect Murder" needs Paltrow, not because her performance is so riveting -- as the part is written, there's hardly anything she could have done with it -- but because otherwise, Davis' picture would have no warmth, but no crisp coolness, either. Extremes in temperature are useful things in a thriller (think of the iciness of "Basic Instinct," or the sizzle of "Dressed to Kill"), but "A Perfect Murder" is more like a handful of anemic ice cubes floating in a lukewarm puddle. The story, a rejiggered "Dial M for Murder" (Frederick Knott's play actually gets a mention in the credits), involves a snakelike international businessguy (the terminally lipless Michael Douglas) who plots to kill off his beautiful, rich and, incidentally, unfaithful wife (Paltrow, who at least gives her character an aura of serenity and innate smarts) with the help of a carefully chosen hit man (Viggo Mortensen, who lets his lank hair give most of the performance and speaks in a bizarrely slurred locution that sounds like a speech impediment). The big twist on the "Dial M for Murder" plot is that the killer isn't just an acquaintance of the husband's -- it's the wife's lover. In this case, the lover/killer Mortensen is a hip downtown artist whose canvases are blown-up photos with paint splashed on them; Paltrow is a patron of the arts with a job at the United Nations. The two have been trysting at Mortensen's cavernous Brooklyn loft. When Douglas approaches Mortensen with a plan that will allow him to slip into the couple's swanky uptown pad via a key left outside the back entrance and do away with Paltrow, it's an offer he can't seem to refuse.
The plan, of course, goes awry, and if you've seen "Dial M," you know that the unraveling of the mystery involves some folderol with the house key. Davis -- who made the hugely successful but flashily empty "The Fugitive" -- gives us one moment that makes us jump out of our skin, but beyond that, he doesn't show much wit or style. He's kind enough to send us massive smoke signals to telegraph what's going to happen next -- watch out for that meat thermometer! -- and the murder scene, unlike the coolly elegant one in Hitchcock's otherwise stagebound film of the play, simply involves lots of flailing and grunting. And it's impossible to figure out just what Mortensen's motivations are supposed to be: Although he's pretty much a cad, out to use Paltrow from the start, we suddenly see him acting confused after he's agreed to kill her -- he ends up carrying around a tiny picture -- although there's nothing in the way his character is written or played to suggest that he's really fallen in love with her. It comes off as a halfhearted, last-minute effort to patch some depth onto the character, and for what?
Douglas slithers through the movie with his stock lizard oiliness (has he ever known how to do anything else?), speaking his lines in that ridiculously clipped diction that has by now become something like self-parody. Only Paltrow seems alive and real, prowling Manhattan wrapped in a short shearling coat that looks as soft as a bathrobe, with a broad collar that frames her face like a hipster monk's cowl. The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea -- if they took that away from me, what would I have left? Douglas' buttonhole mouth and a minor whirl of intrigue surrounding a couple of house keys? I'll take beautiful clothes, and actresses who know how to use them, any day.