"Make some noise for Halle Berry in The Call!" yelled last night's male radio personality at the promotional screening I attended. Halle Berry wasn't in the room, obviously, so the few people who obeyed him were making some noise about the idea of Halle Berry, which is good enough for a multiplex inside a shopping mall on a Wednesday night, I guess.
The radio guy's female co-host joined in, changing the tone a little with a clever, "Who loves Halle Berry's hair in this movie?!" No response from the crowd. And it's probably not because people hate Berry's choice of extremely strange wig to play a 911 operator, a double clump of curls on top tapering down to a wedge in back, forming a sort of heart-shaped weirdness mop. It's because they just mentally erased it from their field of vision and it doesn't exist. This was the wig that won what was almost certainly a very long hair screen test and it was designed to make the flabbergastingly beautiful Berry seem more everyday, more like the average bad-hair-having audience member instead of like a movie star who's accidentally found herself working a regular job answering 911 calls. But it's no use. As a device it fails. You can't unshine the sun.
The wig matters, too, symbolically, because it represents at least some sort of stab at reality on the part of the filmmakers. But it's a stab with a cardboard knife, as almost nothing else happening here is going to allow genuine human responses, much less the logical protocols of real-life first responders, to get in the way of the film's suspense-building strategy. A young girl (Abigail Breslin) is kidnapped and marked for death by a serial killer (Michael Eklund) and Berry has to talk her through it as the terrified victim is locked in a car trunk, speaking on a pre-paid, untraceable cell phone. Through a series of missed opportunities to save herself -- the kind that inspire audiences to yell at the screen -- Breslin is suitably frightened and squirmy, hysterically sure of her own imminent demise and able to the convince viewers she's in real danger. The movie works with her paralyzed fear and Berry, too, gives more of herself than the story really demands. For the most part a firm grip holds the action tightly together as she tries to track the killer.
And then off the rails it flies in a final act that throws everything these characters should know out the window, grabbing at chunks of Silence of the Lambs, Taken, I Spit on Your Grave and anything else it can get its suddenly-dumb little hands on. Tension turns to incredulous giggling and closeup shots suggesting torture turn it trashy (unless, you know, seeing the kid from Little Miss Sunshine on a chop-and-rape table with her blouse ripped off is your idea of fun). All prior notions of reason or good sense are dispensed with so that Berry can turn calm, heroic words into vengeful deeds. The wig, previously only marginally reliable as a keeping-it-semi-real signifier, unravels fully, both figuratively and literally, when the star experiences an abrupt, head-first dunking. Full on goofiness is all that's left after that. It's enough to make you wish this action hero would just change into her Oscar night ball gown to finish the job.