Starring Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, and Sharon Stone. Rated PG.

What is it with women and cats? When my wife wanted a pet, she refused to consider getting a dog. She obviously liked abject, cringing, servile creatures but, apparently, didn't need another one. Only a cat would do.

Catwoman explains the allure. It seems that since Egyptian times, women have had a mystical relationship with the smug little beasts. Some have even been magically transformed into fierce, amoral superathletes, with a propensity for rule-breaking, fish, and close-fitting leather outfits. (The movie is silent on the issues of hairballs and pissing in the bathtub.)

The latest of these is Patience Phillips, played by Halle Berry as a knock-kneed geek. Until her untimely death (and resurrection as slinky ass kicker), Patience was an illustrator for Hedare, a big-time cosmetics company run by a sneering French dude (Lambert Wilson) and his ice-queen wife (Sharon Stone), an aging model.

The aging-model bit is pretty poignant when you think that Stone is now 46. She's beautiful but definitely on the back nine of a somewhat notorious career. Her character, Laurel, is a scrappy survivor who's beaten everything except the appeal of fresh bimbettes, and Stone pushes the resonance of her casting for all it's worth, which is not necessarily a lot.

Because, unfortunately, Catwoman is rather awful. The problem is mainly one of concept.

First, it's not true to its organizing mythos. Catwoman originated as a charismatic villain in Batman stories, a Gotham City "cat burglar" with a gender twist. This movie simply riffs on previous TV and film images of Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Michelle Pfeiffer. They keep the ears, the whip, and the walk but turn her into a good girl.

Second, it's a satire with no sting. Patience is killed because she learns something terrible about Hedare's new beauty product. The film is therefore a send-up of corporate brinksmanship, using the most unchallenging targets (Wilson's prissy cretin talks lack ziss, an easy laugh for the French-phobic Amurrcans) to remove any possible edge or irony. And the final showdown with Stone is a complete mismatch and therefore boring.

In contrast to the material itself, many of the details are handled very well. Berry gives an athletic performance, and I liked the design of the nameless city and a good half of the CG shots. The director, Pitof, is going to get blamed for the probable tanking (the film opened weak) of this would-be franchise for Warner Brothers, which invested $80 million in the hands of a relatively obscure French director. I think he's great. A former devisor of special effects, Pitof is an invigorating, innovative composer of images. He sends cameras swooping every which way, twirling, freezing, speeding up. It's all for no real reason, but as with certain record producers--Esquivel in the 1960s samba scene or Trevor Horn with Frankie Goes to Hollywood--manic overproduction can occasionally be admired as an art form in its own right. The film becomes as beautiful as it is stupid, a potent combination to us cat fanciers, but otherwise a dog.