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'Cleopatra's Second Husband'

Crowded house 'Cleopatra's Second Husband' portrays a housesitting horror

Friday, July 13, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When the subject of a housesitter is first raised, Robert balks and feebly says he doesn't like the idea of someone rummaging through his stuff. Little does he know that his housesitters will rummage through his stuff and his psyche and overrun not only his home but his life.

    Movie review


RATING: R for language, partial nudity, sex, violence.

STARRING: Paul Hipp, Boyd Kestner


CRITIC'S CALL: 2 stars


"Cleopatra's Second Husband," playing this weekend at the Melwood Screening Room in Oakland, opens with a dinner party that illustrates everything that's wrong with Robert (Paul Hipp), a photographer who is either a hypochondriac or has a weak constitution. He and his 32-year-old wife, Hallie (Bitty Schram), are hosting a dinner party -- her friends, not his -- at which the subject of a housesitter is raised and immediately seconded. Hallie also announces the couple's efforts to have a child and how they're going to try insemination in a year if they're still not pregnant.

Robert and Hallie fly off on vacation, leaving their California home to the seemingly charismatic Zack (Boyd Kestner) and his girlfriend Sophie (Radha Mitchell). When their vacation is cut short, they return home to find their tropical fish dead and their housesitters unwilling to leave. They ask to stay another week, and Hallie says yes.

The orderly life in the household begins to unravel. Hallie discovers Sophie borrowed her new black dress and later, her husband, for a romp in the darkroom. "I can't believe you could do this to me, Robert. I'm probably gonna ovulate any day now," is Hallie's reaction.

When Hallie leaves, the balance of power tilts further, turning Robert into a virtual servant and houseguest-from-hell Zack into his abusive master who takes advantage at every turn. When Robert belatedly hatches a scheme to reclaim his life, the movie takes an even darker, more disturbing turn.

Writer-director Jon Reiss was inspired by a real-life housesitting horror. He and his wife went to the country for a month and had a friend of a friend sit. When they returned, their fish were dead, their house insurance canceled and their kitchen floor boards were severely warped because of a leak. He took that germ, inflated it, twisted it and -- we hope -- gave himself the sort of ultimate revenge possible only on film.

"Cleopatra's Second Husband" (the title is a kicky way of saying Robert sublimates his desires and wishes to his wife and everyone else) suffers from a bad case of timing. It pales in comparison to the nail-biting Hitchcockian thriller "With a Friend Like Harry," another tense treatise on an outsider and his girlfriend taking control of a family's life.

"Harry" has a complicated villain and characters who are likable or innocent, giving you a haven in the storm. "Cleopatra's" has a wife who's a harpy, a husband who likes to photograph maggots and is so weak-willed that he cedes control of his life to others, a housesitter whose actions could get him arrested and a girlfriend who has no sense of propriety or property.

That's not to say you won't be curious about how all of this is going to end. But that conclusion is so extreme that you may find yourself agitated and repulsed instead of liberated. One thing is certain, though. You won't be willing to turn the keys over to a housesitter any time soon.

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