By Stephanie Zacharek
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House sitters are always trouble. In the movies, this is a rule with few exceptions, and the house sitter in Cleopatra's Second Husband isn't among them. This elliptically nasty little psychological thriller from writer/director Jon Reiss features possibly the most odious house sitter in movie history, then serves him a comeuppance so horrifying you can't help but pity him.
The abode in question is a handsome one in L.A. belonging to Robert (Paul Hipp), who shares it with his wife, Hallie (Bitty Schram). He's a wealthy but not quite famous art photographer, a seemingly mild, emotionally disconnected fellow who's easily dominated by his wife. She's obsessed with getting pregnant, and their sex life is accordingly mechanical and unerotic.
Pushed by Hallie into a vacation in the country, Robert leaves the house in the care of the feral Zack (Boyd Kestner) and his gorgeous girlfriend Sophie (Radha Mitchell), who've been recommended by Hallie's trendy friends. When they return early, they find that the sexually avid couple have let Robert's fish die, and that they have nowhere to go. So he lets them stay.
Before long, of course, the sexual lines have been crossed in the quartet, and Hallie moves out in disgust. The result is a strange ménage à trois in which Robert, who's a capable chef, plays cook and housekeeper to his own house sitters and receives his pay in the form of occasional sexual favors from Sophie.
Then the household dynamic turns violent, and Sophie leaves as well. After that, it's just the boys, bachin' it. And that's when things get really nasty. Robert endures the abusive Zack, simply as his link to Sophie, for a while, but eventually the story takes an outré, worm-that-turns twist that would be spoiled by even hinting at it.
Suffice to say that it's jolting, but psychologically plausible. Everything about Robert's character, from his artistic medium of choice to his choice of subject matter to his numbness in response to Hallie's biological ambitions, prepares us for his awful reprisal against Zack.
Reiss spins this yarn in an atmosphere of sinister, sunlit quiet that seems to reflect Robert's mindset. It's easy to see why Robert would be drawn to the luscious Sophie; her placidity would be a tonic after Hallie's bustling brashness. Mitchell's role is small, but without the sexual charge she brings to the material, Cleopatra's Second Husband wouldn't make sense. Nor would it maintain coherence without that badly underused and underrated actress Schram (best known as the "no crying in baseball" woman in A League of Their Own), who doesn't let Hallie become a caricature.
In the end, though, the film is a nightmare duet between Robert and Zack. Kestner, soon to play Clarice Starling's love interest in the upcoming film of Hannibal, is convincingly magnetic, and that's all the role really requires. The central performance is by Hipp -- he played Buddy Holly on Broadway, and Jesus Christ at the end of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant -- who manages to make Robert grow more disturbingly recessive as the story progresses. It's a creepy and sad performance, and it's also perversely sympathetic.
The title is puzzling. In the press materials, Reiss (a music-video hand) claims that it was arbitrary in the Reservoir Dogs vein -- he stuck it on the project as a working title, he says, after watching the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra, because the relationship of Antony and the Nile Queen seemed somehow analogous to that of Robert and Hallie. The comparison was lost on me, I'm afraid, but there's no denying that Cleopatra's Second Husband has a cool ring to it.
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