Penthouse North isn’t going to be added to my list of favorite Joseph Ruben movies. Not because it isn’t suspenseful (it is although just sufficiently so), not because the technical aspect was lousy (it wasn’t, really, and I loved the lighting and the overall production design) and not because I am no fan of Michael Keaton.
The truth is, I decided to watch the film after reading a synopsis about Michael Keaton terrorizing Michelle Monaghan. I thought about his Carter Hayes/James Danforth character in 1990’s Pacific Heights and if his “Penthouse North” character was something similar, then, I figured that I’d enjoy the film. Playing creepy villains is about the only way I can appreciate Michael Keaton’s acting.
The thing about Penthouse North is that it falls short of everything.
The premise: If your boyfriend gave you a diamond, would it ever cross your mind that it was stolen?
Sara (Michelle Monaghan) is a photojournalist left permanently blind after a suicide bomber attack in Afghanistan. She lives with her boyfriend, Ryan, at his beautiful New York penthouse with a view of the water. On New Year’s eve, she goes to the store in preparation for the party later that night. A cyclist runs her down and a kind stranger helps her on her feet.
When Sara gets back home, she calls out to Ryan but does not get a response. Being blind, she does not see Ryan’s dead body propped against a kitchen cabinet. Neither is she aware that the kind stranger who helped her earlier is also in the apartment with a knife and who, apparently, is Ryan’s killer. Only after Sara slips on the pool of blood around Ryan’s body does she realize that her boyfriend is dead. The stranger makes his presence known and asks her where the diamonds are.
With Sara tied to the bed, the stranger makes a phone call. Sara uses the distraction to pick up her heavy camera then hits the stranger with it. She runs out of the apartment and down the fire escape. During the chase, the apartment building’s doorman is killed by the stranger.
On the street, another stranger who introduces himself as a New York city prosecutor offers help. While apparently calling 911 for help, he escorts Sara back to her apartment where Ryan’s killer follows them.
The rest of the story takes place inside the penthouse where the two men search for the diamonds. The lighting is subdued, almost noir-ish, the mood of the characters alternates from panicky to desperate to violent. Sara learns that Ryan’s killer, Chad (Barry Sloane), and the stranger who made the (fake) 911 call, Hollander (Michael Keaton), are in cahoots. Together with Ryan, they stole a cache of diamonds, Ryan took off with the loot and his partners have been trying to find him since. Sara’s diamond pendant was taken from the stolen cache of diamonds.
Sara, trying to survive, gives Chad and Hollander possible hiding places for the diamonds. While Hollander digs into the potted plants on the terrace, Chad makes himself a drink. He dumps ice cubes into his glass of Scotch and, as he takes a swig, something catches his eye. The dead Ryan had hidden the diamonds in the ice tray and the stones were embedded in the ice cubes. Ryan was clearly belonged to the school of thought that the best way to hide something is to keep it in plain sight.
Director Joseph Ruben does not make movies all that often. Among his works, my favorites are The Good Son (with the very young Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood) and Sleeping With the Enemy (loved that Victorian house with the swing on the porch). The last one he directed, the Julian Moore-starrer The Forgotten, was largely forgettable. And he doesn’t really redeem himself with Penthouse North.
The newly-blind Sara was moving too confidently without a cane and her well-developed sense of smell would be more believable if she had been blind since birth or early childhood.
Barry Sloane as Chad was just too much. I’ve seen Sloane in Revenge and The Whispers, and… his acting I can only label as over-the-top. Not uncommon with theater-trained actors, actually. Many theater actors who cross over to film and television seem to fail to make the proper transition. While exaggerated movements and line-delivery are effective on stage, they look and sound ridiculous on screen.
And then, there’s Michael Keaton as Hollander who just wasn’t creepy enough to carry the film.
Overall, however, Penthouse North was enjoyable enough. The suspense was on a level that kept me so focused that I forgot to dip into my bag of chips.