While dowdy Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) takes over the life of pretty Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda), director Barbet Schroeder indulges the urge to merge with Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo), Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby) and Ingmar Bergman (Persona). But Schroeder’s Sir Mix-a-Lot approach to moviemaking smacks less of art than commerce. Selling cheap thrills with pop psychology may earn him a date-night hit, but what a comedown. Schroeder proved incisively adept at shaping social satire in Reversal of Fortune and Barfly. But Don Roos’s script for Single White Female, from the 1990 potboiler SWF Seeks Same, by John Lutz, is as empty as a hack’s head. Schroeder goes through the motions — the movie is elegantly made — but this synthetic Hollywood package panders shamelessly to the baser instincts.
Though high-heeled Allie struts just like an ambitious career woman, she breaks — you guessed it — just like a little girl. When her lover Sam (Steven Weber) cheats on her, she banishes him (briefly) from her rent-controlled Manhattan apartment, runs an ad for a female roommate and then dissolves in tears over being unattached. Even Fonda’s innate intelligence can’t save the role from banality.
Enter soothing Hedra, the ideal roomie in Allie’s eyes. Anyone else would see trouble coming. Schroeder directs the usually subtle Leigh to play creepy from the outset, so when she flips out and starts to copy Allie’s hairstyle, makeup and clothes, there’s no chill. Forget the fancy subtext about trading identities; this is just another woman-killing-woman flick wallowing in the muck with Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
Not that guys are spared. Allie is spied on by her neighbor (Peter Friedman) and sexually harassed by her boss (Stephen Tobolowsky). And Sam, in a soon-to-be-infamous blow-job scene, has his Nineties-man sensitivity put to the test. Dozing in bed, Sam gets a visit from Hedra, who is decked out as Allie. With her head bobbing above his crotch, Sam is too self-involved to notice that this girl is not his girl. Then he catches on. Should he kick her out or come first? The answer will make for heated debate.
There’s no point in dropping hints about a dead twin or a spike heel used as a lethal weapon. Who gets offed matters little, since the script keeps dishing out sadistic jolts long after it stops making sense. It’s dispiriting that more and more thrillers show women turning on each other for empowerment rather than to each other. You expect sexist politicians to imply that women are hormonal wrecks for the sake of a vote. The real shock of Single White Female is seeing an artist like Schroeder do it for the sake of a buck.