The Perfect Guy‘s marketing campaign doesn’t do the self-consciously campy stalker-thriller (a less over-the-top but still ideal double billing with last January’s The Boy Next Door) any favors – its tagline, “Trust One, Fear the Other,” promises a tastelessly regressive sort of love triangle in which two possessive men clash violently over the affections of a lady love. That’s not the kind of film, in a year that’s already delivered some of the decade’s most indelible female characters (in fare as diverse yet mainstream as Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy and Inside Out), many critics are chomping at the bit to sample.
Luckily, this is one of those rare Hollywood productions with surprises in store, most notably lead actress Sanaa Lathan, who takes a simple harangued-heroine part and draws out of it enough charisma and complexity to elevate the entire movie above the bargain-bin fare it probably would have been in less capable hands. Playing successful working woman Leah, who dumps her longtime boyfriend Dave (Morris Chestnut) after he blanches at the thought of starting a family, the actress quickly constructs a deeply sympathetic and likable protagonist whom audiences can genuinely root for (a rarity nowadays, especially in the romantic thriller genre).
Soon after she gives Dave the boot, Leah finds herself falling for the very handsome, impeccably put-together Carter (Michael Ealy), whose whirlwind courtship leaves the girl wondering if she’s finally met the right guy. Carter, with his high-flying career, magnetic personality and flawless smile, seems too good to be true. And because everyone going into the theater knows what kind of movie this is, it’s no surprise when that’s exactly the case – turns out, the dude’s a controlling head-case prone to outbursts of terrible violence. Horrified, Leah slams on the brakes and tries to leave Carter in her rearview. But unfortunately for her, this perfect guy is actually a perfect nightmare, tech-savvy and obsessive enough to make her life a living hell.
Now, nothing in The Perfect Guy is going to knock your socks off with originality – director David M. Rosenthal and writer Tyger Williams wear their influences on their sleeve, from Fatal Attraction to Obsessed to Lakeview Terrace – but it’s the professionalism with which such familiar parts are oiled and put to work that ensures the film never feels like a waste of time. That audiences know what kind of arc to expect going in also frees up Rosenthal and Williams to skip much of the boring exposition (indeed, a few odd lines out suggest some talky, background-heavy scenes were left on the cutting room floor) and turn the screws briskly, with loony, lurid vigor. The result is a lean, mean picture with uncommon clarity of purpose, as well as roundly solid performances.
Lathan’s fine work is complemented by a deeply creepy turn from Ealy, whose far-away gaze and calm intonations (which previously made him a solid romantic leading man in About Last Night and Think Like a Man) become ominous and eerie. Carter is a complicated character to nail, but the actor prevents him from spilling over into cliches while seamlessly shifting between emotions on a dime. Though Carter is clearly obsessed, and sometimes pathetic, when it comes to Leah, the guy is also terrifyingly smart and capable. It’s going to be hard not to look for undercurrents of darkness in Ealy’s future good-guy roles – with The Perfect Guy, he’s entered the cinematic pantheon of psycho stalkers.
Rosenthal, who has never directed a studio film before but previously helmed indie backwoods nail-biter A Single Shot, displays considerable craftsmanship behind the camera, utilizing lighting, mise en scène and an appropriately shadowy color palette to enhance and play off his characters’ actions, motivations and development. The Perfect Guy is a strikingly good-looking movie, especially because Rosenthal does a commendable job (collaborating with cinematographer Peter Simonite) of highlighting his casts’ dark skin tones without drowning them in shadow, even during scenes set outside at night.
Williams’ script lacks out-there frills, but it’s single-minded and fast-paced enough to satisfy, albeit on basic cinematic levels. It does get one thing very right, though – Leah almost unfailingly stays at the center of the action, never backing into a corner to let the men duke it out. She’s no damsel, and she’s more than capable of taking matters into her own hands when Carter’s obsession turns deadly.
The Perfect Guy is intriguing from a feminist standpoint in how it both resolutely fails the Bechdel Test (even afternoon coffee with the gal pals is all about the dudes) yet works to empower its heroine above any other male character on screen (the film’s dark comedy comes exclusively at the expense of Carter and the investigating detective, played with weary gravitas by theater vet Holt McCallany). The Perfect Guy‘s gender politics aren’t faultless, but they at least paint Leah as an empowered heroine who, contrary to the off-base marketing campaign, doesn’t need either of the main men in her life.
Taken in a cultural setting, the movie is also deeply thought-provoking, almost in spite of its B-movie trappings. Domestic violence is an epidemic in the United States, and black women like Leah are particularly at risk. Nearly one third of black women have endured abuse, either physical or psychological, by an intimate partner in their lifetime. That’s significantly higher than the levels of domestic abuse reported to be carried out against white women.
Building The Perfect Guy around three African-American leads (a choice emphasized by the fact that most of the main supporting characters, including the detective, are white) could be seen not only as an attempt to appeal to a black moviegoing public but to explore the combination of racism and patriarchy that works to silence black women in abusive relationships throughout our society. It feels very intentional that when Carter first reveals a particularly vicious streak, he takes his anger out on a white male attempting to strike up a conversation with Leah, but that when Carter turns on Leah, she’s helped by neither the white detective nor the other man (who is black) in her life. Though Carter, taken symbolically as the black male, has only the white male to fear in the context of the film, Leah must contend with subjugation at the hands of both.
For her, the threat of being oppressed is so extreme that Carter blatantly strives to strong-arm her into a romantic relationship and offers her only death, at his hands, as a suitable alternative outcome. When Leah goes to the police, their contributions are nominal, and it becomes clear that no boy in blue is going to come riding to her rescue. Baked into the film’s ideological DNA is an understanding that black patriarchy oppresses women just as ruthlessly as white patriarchy (for more on this, read bell hooks’ We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity – go ahead, I’ll wait).
How Leah ultimately throws off the shackles of both oppressive forces shouldn’t exactly serve as an exemplar for black women in abusive relationships, but it serves as an entertaining empowerment fantasy all the same, and the film has surprising value in the national discussion about domestic violence and its often deadly escalations.
To be clear, The Perfect Guy is far from perfect in how it grapples with these major issues. Its climax is overly predictable and lets out much of the dramatic steam, and there’s little by way of satisfying denouement. Additionally, the movie’s swings at B-movie eroticism deflate its more interesting ideas by distracting with toothless titillation. The Perfect Guy is just dirty enough to push the edges of a PG-13 but shies away from any sensitive body parts or particularly vivid moments.
There could have been two really terrific versions of this film – one a deliberate and tightly written study in black womanhood squirming under a biracial, misogynistic boot, and the other a trashy Lifetime thriller replete with scandalous moments. Rosenthal’s final product, though unexpectedly well-made and executed on its own grounds, doesn’t have the conviction to lean one way or the other. What’s left over isn’t a perfect movie. But it’s still devilishly entertaining, slickly executed and socially conscious enough to warrant real discussion – and that’s a hell of a lot more than anyone could have asked for.
This devilishly entertaining, slickly executed and surprisingly thought-provoking film tries much harder than it needed to - and is all the better for it.