Adrian Lyne fails to revive the erotic thriller
As soggy and bloated as a submerged corpse, Deep Water gets in a few good strokes but ultimately struggles to stay afloat before sinking like a stone. What drowns it: moribund ideas about estranged coupling and increasingly loopy insights into base human behavior. This randy tale of a mopey cuck and his off-kilter jilter in a very sleazy Big Easy marks the 20-year return of venerable titillator Adrian Lyne, the sexytime stylist behind ’80s smash smut hits 9½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction. But the octogenarian director can’t quite get it up like he used to, leaning on a script rife with absurd amorous situations that short-circuit all the carnal temptation.
DEEP WATER★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Adrian Lyne
Written by: Zach Helm, Sam Levinson
Starring: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Lil Rel Howery, Dash Mihok, Finn Wittrock, Kristen Connolly, Jacob Elordi, Rachel Blanchard
Running time: 115 mins
It’s a shame. Erotic thrillers are such a throwback genre these days that a movie like Deep Water comes pre-loaded with potential. Everyday grown-ups letting base physical attraction and rash emotional passion dictate one bad decision after another? What a welcome novelty, in a cultural climate where people get their kicks watching countless superhero shenanigans on the big screen and an endless banquet of pornucopia online. Resonant stories about the obsessive side of love and lust are rare to find, hard to make, and even more difficult to share as a communal experience. Not for nothing did antsy Disney cancel the film’s planned theatrical release and dump it onto Hulu.
At its heart, Deep Water offers an intriguing portrait of unhappy spouses who use their marital bond to slowly choke each other out. Wildly wealthy retiree Vic Van Allen (a brooding Ben Affleck) carries paralytic regret for building his fortune by designing the tech for killer drones. His wife Melinda (Ana de Armas, oozing pheromones) resents his emotional catatonia and tries to shock him out of it by flaunting her extramarital affairs. She hates that he doesn’t fight for her, he’s a simmering rageaholic cuckold too despondent to reconnect, and brutal bursts of violence are inevitable.
Did I mention the snail shed? Vic finds his inner peace by misting an impressive collection of slimy gastropods. He also fills his day riding his mountain bike, plus taking photos and writing poems for a self-published magazine—with a circulation of one—which he calls Xenophon. Huh? Meanwhile, close friends see Vic reacting to Melinda’s drunk exhibitionism and say things like “You adore her and everyone knows it,” even though she calls him “Mr. Boring” and bites his penis—twice!
The devil is in the details, and there are too many to mock here. Like when Melinda gets into a shouting match with her precocious daughter Trixie because she wants Alexa to play “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Or when Vic hears that Melinda’s latest lover is allergic to shellfish. “You mean all shellfish?” he replies, weirdly dumbfounded. Another lover wants to eat his snails. “They’re not for eating!” he growls.
New Orleans is the backdrop, so everything seems to happen in the majestic confines of shabby-chic plantation-era Garden District mansions. The grand houses host oddly posh boho soirees with leather hats and feather boas scattered amidst cocktail-attired hipsters, or drunken pool parties where the grown-up guests suddenly decide to bake cookies. The film’s attempts at some sort of generational site-specific decadence is strained at best.
“People are strange and grown-ups are complex,” Vic explains to Trixie. True, but Deep Water forgoes complexity and goes all-in on strange. Also sloppy, especially as the film comes to a bumpy close. Passive-aggressive becomes aggressive-aggressive, as Vic randomly hides a big clue among his pet snails right after doing possibly the worst job ever weighing down a dead body in a gorge. The climax is even more preposterous, as the story literally veers off course and over a cliff. There is a darkly happy ending of sorts which hints at the more compelling story that could have been told in more capable hands. Deep Water is not that tale, which makes that pat conclusion all the more shallow.