The recent thriller Taking Lives tried something different in its marketing campaign.

On billboards and posters for the movie we were shown a close-up of a specific body part.

We were shown a woman's lips.

The truly amazing thing about this is that whether the one-sheet was seen from ten blocks away or right up close, we knew whose lips they belonged to without thinking. It is a tribute to something -- branding? collagen? -- that these lips, in and of themselves, signaled everything we needed to know. They told us the movie starred Angelina Jolie. And it was enough to make us -- both men and women -- want to go.

Yet despite this lock on her fan base, this lip twitch as it were, Hollywood has yet to come up with the killer ap for Angelina Jolie, her Basic Instinct, the silver bullet that will put her head and lips above her fellows. If you take into account the fizzle of Lara Croft (only recently announced there would be no 3) the deportation of Beyond Borders and the sad attempt to cast Angelina as a cheerful TV newsblonde in Life Or Something Like It, she can't seem to catch a break as a movie star. Angelina doesn't do cheerful.

But is that what's keeping her from breaking out?

I don't get the impression that she frankly cares, which is a plus, but if she did, what could she do to change this? And how, if she did mind, could she finesse a persona that is considered cold, uninviting and purposely anti-mainstream?

This latest dud doesn't help. A not very good mystery with only one suspect, Taking Lives attempts to turn Angelina into a sexier Ashley Judd. Angelina stars as a troubled forensic homicide detective. Her entrance is a classic in screenwriting bullshit as she sums up, Sherlock Holmes-like, the clues that the other cops (with IQs smaller than her bust size) missed at the scene of the CSI. Add a car chase that shows fem icon Angelina at the wheel (like this was somehow "a breakthrough") and an ending that is hypnotically hare-brained, demanding that Angelina's character draw the bad guy to her by wearing a false disguise that makes her appear pregnant. It is a lame trick, like the ones that never work, designed to fool the audience and not the actual killer.

But the real problem is her.

What are we to make of this girl?

There's no doubt Angelina Jolie is stunningly beautiful. I can't think of another actress like her. Sharon Stone in the modern era comes close, but what kind of career map is that? In years past, Veronica Lake is most Angelina-like. Screwed up and sexy is what these two have in common. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were icy, too, but they were smart and it showed onscreen. Angelina may be aloof, but the smart part does not come across -- nor does it need to. But it's the distance between Angelina and her audience that seems to be on purpose. No one is allowed to connect with her and that's kind of how her fan base likes it. She's the "Xena, Warrior Princess" of the tattoo and Sylvia Plath crowd.

She's also got that sick sex kitten thing going on, that crazy girl who's great in bed attraction. It was this same twisted yet highly seductive quality that first drew us to her, both in her breakthrough role in Gia on HBO, and in her Oscar winning part in Girl, Interrupted. Acting side by side with Winona Ryder, the supposed star of Girl, Interrupted, Angelina out-wacky-ed her (!). But there, in a mental hospital for girls, Angelina had the home field advantage. There's something about Stelazine, five point restraints and Angelina Jolie that kind of goes together. And Angelina kicked ass in the part, far more unleashed, far sexier than the female empowering thrills of the Lara Croft series. She owned that movie. I will never forget the look on Winona's face, both onscreen and in the pre-Oscar to-do, when she realized that her movie, her starring vehicle, was being hijacked by the girl with the lips. How, Winnona's look seemed to say, did this happen? And from there it's been Angelina's challenge to take all that sex power, all that high wattage lustage and turn into something... bigger.

And never quite getting it right.

We all had hope with the Lara Croft series. A video game creation for boys, Lara Croft seemed to be the Playtex living bra that finally fit. Lara Croft is buxom and steely. Angelina is buxom and steely. And the 3-D real life Lara threw herself into training for the role that seemed to be "the one." Some of the gun-wielding, bursting breastplate action is spectacular in LC 1. But once again, Angelina was a little too reserved. There wasn't a moment in it that was designed to make us LIKE her. Compare it to Harrison Ford in Raiders or even the joke-y suave of Pierce Brosnan as Bond and there is no comparison. Angelina is too cool for school.

And it's a turn-off.

Maybe it's because her personal life is so well known and so weird -- her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, the vials of blood, her admitted bi-sexuality, the deal with her brother. These are elements that do not go over big at Oprah's Book Club. And, sadly, it's out of date. In an era of Janet Jackson, FCC rulings against Howard Stern, a time when even Ellen DeGeneres is going straight, Angelina's act does not play as well in 2004 as it played in the let-loose '90s. Maybe she is just a movie star out of her time, and yet I can't think what era she actually fits in. Whatever it is, it has to be an age of decadence, and that's not now.

Fans of Angelina are righteously indignant when these flaws are pointed out. Like Angelina herself, they are iconoclasts who eschew the People Magazine-ization of the world, the need to have the bright, shiny face of Meg Ryan or the all American girl looks of Sandra Bullock all the doo-dah day. Screw that! say Angelina's fans, just let her be Angelina. And tell Katie Couric to go to hell. And yet they too must feel that if only Hollywood could figure it out, Angelina could be one of the greats. She has everything.

Why not?

More attempts to find her breakthrough part have delved into the past, when the powerful sex goddess as icon was better understood and less feared. And in the coming months, we will see more attempts to find Angelina the role that will be the sum of her lips. Of the films in the works now, she will play the Greek Napoleon's Mom in Alexander. And she will embrace the part of famous sex kitten, Catherine the Great, the Russian czarina who liked to do it with horses. Well, at least that should be an interesting casting call.

Whoa!