Silver Screen: The Roommate *1/2

Silver Screen: The Roommate  *1/2
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Silver Screen: The Roommate *1/2
Bryan Miller

As a kid, I used to love horror novels and scary movies, and our tiny town's elementary-school library-- which Adult Me has come to realize was actually a broom closet with bookshelves-- was chock full of shoddy knockoff young-adult books that purloined the plots of prominent horror fiction and toned them down for the playground set. Because apparently it's okay for second-graders to read about serial killers, so long as the violence is more implicit than explicit.

The Roommate takes the same patented de-smutifying formula and applies it to the mostly forgotten B-movie thriller Single White Female, a nifty little bit of cinema du fromage starring Bridget Fonda as a single career gal trying to make it on her own who applies for a roommate and winds up living with a stalker psycho played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. (The movie was based on John Lutz's novel, SWF Seeks Same.) It was released at a time when stalkers and psycho roommates were a weird cinema trend, launched no doubt by Fatal Attraction and continuing with mediocre thrillers like Pacific Heights. Single White Female's particular ace in the hole was its two prominent-- and prominently naked-- young actresses, and the lingering suggestion of more-novel-then girl-on-girl action.

So, pretty classy all around.

In The Roommate, our plucky Bridget Fonda stand-in, Sara (Friday Night Lights' Minka Kelly), doesn't put an ad in the paper for a housemate, but rather is randomly assigned to a dorm room with her own personal psycho, Rebecca, a tremulous, high-strung rich girl played by Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester.

Rebecca's craziness is both under- and overplayed from the beginning. We're supposed to be suspicious of her, apparently, because she'd rather go to art galleries than frat parties and doesn't have a lot of friends. Obviously, from these depraved origins, it's only a short step to torturing an adorable kitten by putting it in a clothes dryer. Meester plays everything from art-gallery-hopping to kitten-killing with the same faux-manic intensity, although most of the time she seems more like a high-strung, very bad date than a member of the National Horrors Society.

Poor, unbelievably hot Sara seeks solace from her cipher of a boyfriend (the incredibly boring Cam Gigandet), a lousy drummer in a lousy frat band, and also in her older friend Irene, a successful fashion designer and somewhat less successful lesbian. Sara smiles and stumbles her way through the scary-movie motions ("Let's go to the crazy person's hometown and find out about her past! Now let's Google her!") on her way to the inevitable bloodless climax.

It's kind of a crime to use the word climax in a movie as wannabe lurid but weirdly sexless as The Roommate. Take away the nudity, sex, and gore from Single White Female, and you've basically got a ten-minute short film about two girls getting the same haircut. And yet that's exactly what Danish director Christian E. Christiansen is up to here.

The Roommate more than just borrows from Single White Female, it's pretty much a paint-by-numbers recreation of the film. The earlier movie's salacious masturbation scene becomes Rebecca having breathy, boring phone sex with Sara's ex-, and the scene in which Rebecca makes herself over to look exactly like Sara and then seduces said ex-boyfriend is nearly identical to the same gag in Single White Female, minus the uncomfortable visual of Wings' Steven Webber getting a B.J. The Roommate's idea of setting itself apart is having our freaked-out villainess tumble-dry a kitten to death rather than chuck a puppy off a balcony. Who says there are no original ideas left?

It's a shame Christiansen and Mallhi don't take their work as ripoff artists more seriously, because The Roommate could have been good, derivative fun. Moving away to college, living on your own for the first time, and especially the freshman-year roommate lottery are all scenarios rife with anxiety and ready for exploitation. The sudden confinement with a stranger, the lack of familiar surroundings, the community showers, the shifting social strata-- it all could have been fantastic fodder for a teen horror flick. But the depiction here of college life is no more convincing than Gigandent's drumming skills or the idea that Minka Kelly is eighteen years old, to say nothing of Meester's attempts at looking insane, which come off more like a girl who just found out she maxed out her credit card at the Gap.