Cleopatra's Second Husband

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

When Robert (Paul Hipp, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") and his overbearing wife Hallie (Bitty Schram, "Kissing a Fool") plan a babymaking trip to the country, friends of friends Zack (Boyd Kestner, G.I. Jane") and Sophie (Radha Mitchell, "Pitch Black") move in to take care of their dog and exotic tropical fish. When they get home, they encounter disarray, dead fish, seduction and psychological game playing in feature debut writer/director Jon Reiss' "Cleopatra's Second Husband."

Laura:
Reiss claims to have based his tale on a true life housesitting incident combined with Marc Anthony's decline in the wake of his passion for Cleopatra. He makes no mention of the Dutch film (and its American remake) "The Vanishing," although clearly it inspired his third act.

After Zack and Sophie declare they're unable to find their own place in LA, Robert quickly becomes enthralled by sexy Sophie and Hallie departs after catching the two together. Zack seems perfectly willing to share Sophie, but when he forces himself on Robert, Sophie leaves in disgust. Zack continues to dominate Robert, even buying him an apron, while clouding his true intentions with a show of friendship and camaraderie. Eventually Robert wises up and plots an elaborate revenge.

While the script contains some good (albeit unoriginal) ideas, the story is so oddly executed that it frequently seems weird for weirdness' sake. Robert, a photographer existing on inheritted money, stops to photograph maggots on roadkill during his country idyll. 'Maggots and dead things - I like it.' says Sophie later as she watches him develop the picture. This is strange and offputting, but leads absolutely nowhere, nor does it provide any character illumination.

The only character who's the least bit likeable is the promiscuous Sophie, yet we wonder how she ended up with evil Zack and what their history was. Robert is a henpecked schlmemiel who's introduced hosting a dinner party of annoying yuppies impressed with pretense. Hallie is unbearable and joyless, demanding sex once a month only in order to get pregnant, because that's the way it's done. Zack is a slovenly satyr and a leech. The cast can't be faulted as they all do a good job playing their characters.

"Cleopatra's Second Husband" would make an OK diversion for late night cable, but as a theatrical feature it's appeal will be extremely limitted. The film completely loses its stream in its final act which is unsatisfying and unappealing.

C-

Robin:
Robert Marrs (Paul Hipp) is a genuine milquetoast. His wife, Hallie (Bitty Schram), doesn't just boss him around, she even dictates their dispassionate sex life as she tries to get pregnant. With her biological clock ticking away, Hallie plans a getaway to the country, in time with her ovulation schedule, to make a baby. The couple just needs someone to take care of their dog and Robert's prized fish. Enter Zack (Boyd Kestner) and Sophie (Radha Mitchell), a couple of friends of a friend of the Marrs, who agree to take care of the house and pets. But, they turn out to be the house-sitters from hell in writer/director Jon Reiss's "Cleopatra's Second Husband."

There is one major problem that negatively impacts "Cleopatra's Second Husband" - the central character Robert. The intent is to show Robert as a weak-willed, lonely guy who accepts everyone else's demands and actions to the continuous detriment of his own. Paul Hipp ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") garners no sympathy from the viewer as he allows, without reason, everyone to walk over his emotions and needs. He is such a doormat that you think him the fool, not just a naove schmuck. The character or the actor, or both, just do not work.

The problem with the lead is unfortunate as the story (and the other three actors' performances) actually supply an intriguing premise with the tale of a man (Robert) who has been treaded upon so often and used so mercilessly by those close to him, he goes over the edge. Robert's wife, Hallie, is so I-want-a-baby driven that she removes any sexual pleasure that Robert might have while performing his husbandly duties. She uses her husband as little more than a sperm bank and his donations can only take place when she demands. The lack of passion and caring in his marriage make Robert a morose and lonely figure.

When the house-sitters from hell arrive on the scene to watch things while the couple have their "romantic" sojourn, all appears to be OK. Then, two things happen: Robert gets a photography job for a journal, forcing him to cut the baby making short and pissing off Hallie. When they arrive at home, he finds that Zack and Sophie have taken over the house and all his fish are dead. When he confronts the couple with their negligence, Zack responds, "Hey, it just happened," then asks to stay for a few more days, 'til they get a place. Hallie agrees to let them stay on against Robert's wishes.

Things begin to fall apart when Robert is caught spying on his new roomies while they have sex. Later, Sophie seduces her landlord in his darkroom. This seems to be an OK deal for Robert, especially when Zack gives his approval. But, Hallie catches him in the act one day and stomps out of Robert's life, leaving the odd threesome to their own devices. The dynamic in the household changes even more as Zack becomes the Alpha male, raping Robert to complete his dominance of the meek man. Sophie, disgusted, also leaves.

Robert's subservience, and Zack's domination of him, takes a sudden turn when something snaps. Robert has had an obsession with doing a photo study of captive insects. He decides that Zack would make a good subject for his study, drugs him, then, locks him in a box to observe his death. The sheer creepiness of this action causes the story to take a bizarre shift in direction that actually helps the flick as the worm, Robert, turns.

The ending isn't enough to redeem Hipp's perf as Robert. The film is the debut effort of its writer/director Weiss and it has an uneven flow, fortunately ending in a bang instead of a whimper. Boyd Kestner, a relative newcomer to film, makes a splash as Zack and is the best thing in "Cleopatra's Second Husband." Radha Mitchell, who impressed me in "High Art," has a good screen presence but not enough screen time in her performance as Sophie. Bitty Schram does a solid job as the domineering wife.

Tech credits are routine, at best, but the concept of the sound proof prison for Zack is a highlight for the film's production design.

I can't help but wonder what "Cleopatra's Second Husband" would have been like with a different lead character. I think it could have been better and give it a C.

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