Starring Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, and Anne Archer
That was two hours of my life that I’ll never get back. When “Fatal Attraction” was released in 1987, film critic Pauline Kael described it as a:
“hostile version of feminism…about men seeing feminists as witches, and the way the facts are presented here, the woman is a witch. Brandishing a kitchen knife, she terrorizes the lawyer and his family…the picture enforces conventional morality…by piling on paranoiac fear.”
I suppose all that is accurate, but the movie Kael is describing at least sounds like it could be an engaging, guilty pleasure cheese-fest. What she doesn’t capture is how stunningly banal and dull “Fatal Attraction” really is. Infidelity is one of the most intriguing, lurid, and juicy subjects for a movie. Yet “Fatal Attraction” has only one place to go and takes forever to get there. The lawyer cheats. The lawyer discards the other woman. The other woman goes bonkers and terrorizes his family.
Equal blame for this misfire go to screenwriter James Dearden and director Adrian Lyne. Dearden gives his characters no psychological depth whatsoever. “Fatal Attraction” is to “forbidden romance thrillers” what watching someone playing “Battlefield 1942” is to a real war movie: we see people going through motions but we have no idea why. Nine times out of ten in real life, infidelity occurs when a married person feels like he or she is missing something from the relationship, and he or she seeks it elsewhere. What, if anything, the movie’s philandering lawyer (Michael Douglas) is missing is never explored. In fact, nothing is ever explored. What he feels for the other woman (Glenn Close, with the eyeshadow and frizzy hair of '80s band Dead or Alive) is never discussed, whether he feels guilty is never mentioned, whether he’s done this before is a big shrug. She’s pregnant, too, although she might as well not be, considering how small a reaction this gets from him.
“Fatal Attraction” doesn’t even appear to be conscious: we get little to no access to what anyone thinks about anything, except some of Close’s crazy ranting, which is so transparent and phony that it’s meaningless. We get nothing about why her character is so whacko, except that the movie’s lazy morality tale needs her to be. I’d wager that if anyone could have thought of real thoughts to put into her head, she wouldn’t need to go whacko. We would have a realized character confronting issues, instead of a cardboard cutout appearing wherever the plot needs her to. Needless to say, when these “people” talk it is only to keep the plot moving. Since we don’t learn anything about them, except in a 1987 display of material gloss, we can’t even begin to speculate on why any of this is happening.
The movie has one good idea: the Douglas character as a user of people. He enjoys the woman’s company, then tosses her aside. It’s an honest dishonest mistake; he just assumed she felt the same way. Later, he jokes with his friends about a promotion, and says that now that he’s gotten where he wants to be, he doesn’t ever need to talk to them. But that’s it.
Still, I can’t decide if we should blame director Lyne more. The movie’s “scares” are, for the most part, straight off the assembly line, with jumpy musical cues when we see something “shocking.” The crazy lady’s stalking gets closer and closer. She shows up at work, she shows up at home, she shows up at the mysteriously androgynous daughter’s school. When you think she’s dead she springs to life once more and when she comes at you with a knife she screams. Lyne’s fault is that he treats Dearden’s barren screenplay not as the stuff of trash novels or Harlequin romances but as something meaningful. This is an hour-long featurette dragged out to two hours simply by Lyne’s drab seriousness. (“Fatal Attraction” is, in fact, based on screenwriter Dearden’s 42-minute film “Diversion” from 1979.)
Lyne gets a couple things right, I have to say: during their first coupling, the look on Douglas’s face and the shotgun-pumping sound of his, um, insertion, are just priceless. We all howled and backed up the DVD to watch and listen again. The rest of their romance is the movie sex characteristic of the 1980s and early ‘90s, which for all its acrobatics and passionate slamming into walls, tries too hard to be “shocking” and “graphic” that it just winds up being silly. Think “Basic Instinct,” that more entertaining trashy-sex-death romp with Michael Douglas.
Here are some better movies about marital discord: “Lantana,” “Betrayal,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “In the Bedroom.” Go watch them instead.
Finished Monday, June 27th, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Friday & Saturday Night
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