`Basic Instinct' Is Only Skin Deep

XX 1/2 "Basic Instinct," with Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Leilani Sarelle, George Dzundza, Dorothy Malone. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, from a script by Joe Eszterhas. Alderwood, Cinerama, Crossroads, John Danz, Kent, Northgate, Seatac Mall, Southcenter. "R" - Restricted, due to language, violence, graphic sex scenes. --------------------------------------------------------------- Slick, clever and entertainingly overheated while you're watching it, "Basic Instinct" starts to evaporate the second you leave the theater.

Like most of the movies written by Joe Eszterhas during the past decade, it's a skin-deep thriller that draws its suspense from one question: Does the central character's chosen object of lust and/or affection deserve to be trusted?

In Eszterhas's "Jagged Edge," Glenn Close fell in love with a man accused of murdering his wife. In "Betrayed," Debra Winger was infatuated with a neo-Nazi. In "Music Box," Jessica Lange refused to believe her father was a war criminal.

"Jagged Edge" came first and still seems the most compelling of the lot, perhaps because the formula wasn't so obvious seven years ago. Yet Eszterhas' screen-writing fee keeps going up. He got $3 million for this one - which is still a fraction of the $14 million that the movie's sole marquee name, Michael Douglas, took home.

For all that money, Eszterhas does offer a twist on his formula. This time the man is the one who must do the trusting, while the woman is immediately suspect. In the opening scene, a retired rock star is graphically murdered at the moment of sexual climax by a woman whose face we can't see.

Is the killer his super-bright, very rich girlfriend (Sharon Stone), who shows no remorse and shamelessly flirts with the San Francisco police detective (Douglas) who questions her? Or is it the girlfriend's girlfriend (Leilani Sarelle), who is intensely jealous of this flirtatious new relationship? Or is there another culprit?

The fact that the chief suspects are lesbians or bisexual women has drawn fire from gay groups who have called the script "gratuitously defamatory" toward lesbians and women in general. The same charge could be made against any number of film-noir classics that prominently feature predatory femmes fatale of ambiguous sexuality.

What's objectionable about "Basic Instinct" is not the fact that the killer may be a woman who sometimes sleeps with women, but that Eszterhas and the Dutch director, Paul Verhoeven, use her bisexuality as decadent, kinky window dressing. When major studios adapt novels about positive lesbian role models, such as "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "The Color Purple," the lesbianism is invariably removed.

(A protest group plans to distribute flyers, wave signs and perform street theater at 6:15 tonight at the Cinerama Theater.)

The heterosexual lovemaking scenes, which were snipped here and there to purchase an R rating, benefit from Jerry Goldsmith's sensual score and Jan De Bont's stylish wide-screen cinematography. But too many of them seem familiar. Didn't we recently catch Douglas doing this up-against-the-wall, can't-stop-now routine with Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction"?

Eszterhas does have a knack for introducing complications, subplots and additional suspects just in time to keep you from paying attention to plot holes. Verhoeven keeps you watching and handles his actors well, although his best-known European film, "The Fourth Man," which also deals with gay characters and a woman whose lovers kept dying on her, was executed with far more wit and sophistication. He's slumming here.

Douglas is always believable as the half-rotten hero, Jeanne Tripplehorn is a real find as his ex-lover, and Stone (who played Arnold Schwarzenegger's devious wife in Verhoeven's "Total Recall") comes through with the kind of dazzling icy/hot performance that made a star of Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat." When the controversy has been forgotten, "Basic Instinct" may be remembered as the movie that put her on the map.