Director: Geoffrey Sax
Writers: Cheryl Edwards, Marko King, Mary King, Jonathan Watters, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, Oscar Janiger, Philip Goldbeg
Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring: Halle Berry, Stellan Skarsgård, Phylicia Rashad, Chandra Wilson
Studio/Runtime: Freestyle Releasing/101 min.
Like the lazy screenwriter’s other favorite crutch, amnesia, multiple personality disorder in stories has always been a bit of a mixed blessing. It’s a fascinating concept that has contributed, in the hands of real artists, to some of the best movies ever made, from Psycho to Fight Club. More frequently, though, it lends itself to some really terrible studio plotlines, giving screenwriters an easy way out when they’ve written themselves into a corner. Frankie and Alice is a little bit different, since it doesn’t try to spring the whole MPD thing on you as a Shyamalanian twist, but it falls prey to the same pitfalls as previous movies exploring this territory—it’s more interested in exploring the disease than trying to make a compelling film.
As signaled by the title, Frankie and Alice focuses on unraveling the different personalities of a woman played by Halle Berry, one of whom is Frankie, another being Alice. In all she has three personalities in conflict with each other and causing problems for her life, a result of some mysterious traumatic event while she was young. Stellan Skarsgård acts as her psychiatrist/mentor, forcing her to confront her past and acknowledge what’s happening to her. And… that’s it. Half of the film is focused on figuring out whether she has multiple personalities, which is obviously a foregone conclusion to audiences before they enter the theater, and the other half is about the ever-so-slight mystery of how this happened to her. For separate reasons neither half of this slight story is compelling, and rather than using Berry’s disorder as an easy way to tie up loose threads in the plot, Frankie and Alice’s veritable baseball team of writers just decided that MPD was the plot and called it a day.
Without any real story to speak of, that leaves the film reliant on its performances and director to make something interesting out of the material. Director Geoffrey Sax shoots the film with a bland, prestige-y feel that never warms up to the characters. Then there’s Skarsgård, who’s on complete autopilot and seems at least as disinterested in the material as Sax. The heart of the picture, though, is Halle Berry, who also produced the film and was a driving force behind getting it made. Her performance is occasionally inspired, occasionally wretched, and mostly just passable. She certainly gave her all to the picture, but the material can’t handle the level of pathos she tries to portray on-screen, making the entirety of her performance feel like melodrama. With a few exceptions it’s always clear that she’s acting; she never becomes the character. Unfortunately what really sticks with you from the film is Berry at her worst, in particular her always cringe-inducing portrayal of a 10-12-year-old personality that fails so badly it’s awkward just to watch.
If all of that doesn’t sound disappointing enough, Frankie and Alice adds some awful racial/sexual politics into the mix. Berry’s character (characters?) can only be saved by a system propped up by white men, who lock her up and control her without her permission and illegally keep her in a mental ward against the will of any of her personalities—rationalized in the movie by saying that it’s for her own good. Things become downright creepy when the movie tells you that the person it’s based on soon married another psychiatrist. It’s hard to see why exactly Berry wanted to play such a disempowered female, and having one of her personalities be a racist white woman doesn’t so much help make a point about race’s social construction as it does make everything into a weird muddle.
Frankie and Alice is just one of those pictures where nothing comes together. The story is almost non-existent, the actors are from different worlds, and by the end of the film no one who made it seems clear on why it might be worth watching. Other than the A-list actors and high production values, there’s little to nothing differentiating the film from any made-for-TV movie on Lifetime.