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CLEOPATRA’S SECOND HUSBAND(director/writer: Jon Reiss; cinematographer: Matt Faw; editor: Toby Yates; music: Cary Berger; cast: Paul Hipp (Robert Marrs), Boyd Kestner (Zack Taylor), Bitty Schram (Hallie Marrs), Radha Mitchell (Sophie); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jill Goldman/David Scott Rubin/Jacqui de la Fontaine/Jon Reiss; Indican Pictures; 1998)
“A tough thriller to find enjoyable or completely satisfying no matter how well crafted the story is by writer-director Jon Reiss …”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A tough thriller to find enjoyable or completely satisfying no matter how well crafted the story is by writer-director Jon Reiss, who is making his filmmaking debut. Cleopatra’s Second Husband is a black comedy attacking middle-class values that goes no further in its depravity than coming up with a shocking and unpredictable conclusion. The battle lines drawn are between the haves-and-the have-nots, the upper-and-lower classes, and between brawn versus brains. Its psychological theme of cruel treatment and revenge turns from one of strange behavior to diabolical posturing, and finally to sadomasochistic games that should turn one’s stomach with either disgust or fill one’s head with amazement at how everything finally gets resolved. If it’s disgust, the reaction I had, then you will not applaud this creative thriller as much as wonder why the story can’t penetrate further than such a surface reaction.

Robert Marrs (Paul Hipp) is an aspiring photographer with an assortment of health problems including allergies and a sinus condition for which he takes a variety of pills and still usually feels sick. After inheriting a modest sum of money from his folks, he made some wise financial investments and purchased a stately Spanish-styled Los Angeles home. He has also somewhat adjusted to being married to the 32-year-old Hallie (Bitty Schram), who is shrill, controlling, and is desperately trying to get pregnant before her biological clock stops ticking. She is so self-absorbed that she tunes out her shy hubby’s wants, and only has sex with him once a month during her ovulation cycle — indicating the severity of the couple’s communication problem. Continuing her manipulation of him, she arranges for a vacation in a country cottage because she thinks the change will relax them and make it easier for her to become pregnant. They make a handsome yuppie couple who have tastefully furnished their home and have made their lives bearable by being so predictable. Their conventional marriage is viewed as more of a convenience than a loving one.

Hallie has worked out a plan without his knowledge for them to have a young unmarried couple, Zack (Boyd Kestner) and Sophie (Radha Mitchell), who are friends of her friends, to house-sit while they vacation. This will prove to be a big mistake because the rugged, unreliable Zack and the trashy sexpot Sophie, move in and do their degenerate best to upset their hosts’ appearances of a happy household. When in the middle of their vacation Robert gets an offer from a prestigious photo magazine to publish his arty photos and he tells Hallie he must leave her alone to spend three days doing photo shoots of dead animals, she blows up and ends the vacation. Returning early, Robert finds all his valuable tropical fish are dead in the aquarium for some mysterious reason and Hallie is upset that Sophie was wearing her dresses without permission. Since they caught the young couple off-guard by coming home early Hallie, still angry at her hubby for cutting the vacation short, talks him into allowing them to stay another week to try to find an apartment. But the shit hits the fan when Robert succumbs to the temptation of the sexually uninhibited Sophie and starts screwing her, without Zack minding. But when Hallie catches them together she splits for Europe pining about how could Robert do this to her. After she leaves the fragile and dependent Robert, he decides to let the couple stay on for support.

Zack immediately starts taking advantage of Robert’s docile nature and bullies him with a certain contempt and hatred he has for those he perceives as being his superiors, he even kicks him out of the master bedroom, takes his credit cards, rapes him, beats him, and turns him into a servant. Sophie, who is only a good time gal, splits when she catches on to how sadistic Zack really is, which goes beyond the kicks she’s looking for on this trip. The two men are opposites and relate to each other only because they are brought together under such demanding circumstances, as they each are fighting for their integrity to survive in a cruel world of roadkills and wanton deaths. It’s a battle of the wills, and it brings out a subtle change in Robert’s personality that perhaps would not have arisen if there was no hateful Zack around to torment him. Paul Hipp’s performance is compelling, though I never liked any character in this film and never quite believed that his Robert character could attract in the maddening way he did the other three main characters — his shallow suburban wife, the lowlife floozy, and the sociopath. It all seemed too stagy. But even if I can’t fully believe what happened or support the filmmaker’s narrow misanthropic view of humanity, I nevertheless felt the work had a certain wit that made things on the surface, at least, appear stimulating and thought-provoking.

REVIEWED ON 10/23/2002 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”