Since most of the target audience for the PG-13 thriller “The Roommate” presumably hadn”t been born when “Single White Female” hit theaters in 1992, it”s understandable that someone might want to go back to that particular well and retell the tale of the best friend and roomie who becomes a psycho stalker. But that retelling would need to be suspenseful, or clever, or twisted, or even trashy to justify its existence.
“The Roommate,” sadly, is none of these things.
Minka Kelly stars as Sara, a Des Moines girl on her own in the big city of Los Angeles in her freshman year of college. She becomes fast friends with her new roommate Rebecca (Leighton Meester), a local girl who seems normal enough…at first. Before long, however, Rebecca completely follows the obsessive playbook: memorizing Sara”s class schedule, scaring off Sara”s other pals, adopting Sara”s tastes, resenting Sara”s new boyfriend Stephen (Cam Gigandet), and so forth.
In a competently made thriller, the tension would increase with each turn of the screw, building up to a terrifying showdown between hunter and prey. But in “The Roommate,” every time Rebecca does something nefarious, the movie immediately deflates any suspense by cutting away to the utterly lifeless Sara/Stephen relationship or some other subplot. Rather than feeling the terror mount, we merely observe each incident as discrete and unconnected episodes, like a bunch of note cards that have been scattered all over the floor.
There”s nothing aggressively awful about “The Roommate”; it just feels lazy and phoned-in. Sonny Mallhi”s paint-by-numbers screenplay pretty much rips off “Single White Female” from start to finish, and director Christian E. Christiansen (making his US feature debut) seems way out of his depth. Not only does the film fail to deliver one single chill, but it also looks dreadful – cinematographer Phil Parmet (who also shot Rob Zombie”s “Halloween” remake”) delivers a constant dull murkiness, as though he filmed everything through a used coffee filter.
The director also flubs it when it comes to working with actors – I”ve never watched Kelly on either “Friday Night Lights” or “Parenthood,” but fans of those shows dig her work. With only “The Roommate” to go on, however, she struck me as extraordinarily blank. I never bought her character”s love of fashion, or her romance with a frat boy, or her slow realization that she”s living with a basket case.
Of course, the competition for Biggest Cipher is a heated one in this film – Gigandet coasts on cute and never finds a note besides Supportive Boyfriend to play. (There”s a scene where he has to wander through a library looking for a book, and you haven”t seen a screen performer working so far out of his skill set since Kim Basinger tried to look convincing pushing a vacuum cleaner in “The Burning Plain.”)
Meanwhile, Meester – one of the few highlights of the recent “Country Strong” – confuses pouting with menace. She”s the screen”s least frightening bogeywoman since Mischa Barton in “Homecoming.” Meester”s fellow CW stars, “Vampire Diaries”” Nina Dobrev as Rebecca”s high-school stalkee and Matt Lanter of “90210” as Sara”s ex, come and go so quickly that they barely have time to disappoint.
The one person in “The Roommate” who seems to have a pulse at all is Aly Michalka as the dorm bad-girl who gets attacked early on by Meester. She leaves the film far too early, and only after being subjected to a really oddly filmed and unflattering shot of her midriff during a shower scene. (And there”s nothing wrong with her midriff, mind you – any woman would look bizarre the way this thing was lit and composed.)
It”s not impossible to make a scary PG-13 movie – just look at “Drag Me to Hell” – but many directors, deprived of gore and extreme violence, can”t find any other way to put audiences on edge. This is one of those movies where, apart from the occasional LOUD! noise on the soundtrack, they”ve got nothing else to offer.
Perhaps the single most offensive aspect of “The Roommate” is its lazy explanation for why Rebecca is such an obsessive weirdo – it basically boils down to “She”s bi-polar!” People who actually cope with that disorder might feel compelled to picket this movie if it was going to be around for a second weekend, but “The Roommate” will no doubt pack its things and clear out of theaters well before midterms.
“The Roommate” is now in theaters everywhere.
Duralde is the author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas” available on Amazon.com and the DVD Editor of Movieline. He’s also written for MSNBC and the Rotten Tomatoes Show.