It’s been fascinating to watch as Hulu becomes a staging ground for the unfolding fallout of the Fox/Disney merger. The buyout left Disney with a number of films too big for DTV, not big enough to compete in multiplexes, and too adult-oriented for the Disney+ brand, so they ended up on Hulu. We’ve already seen this with Fresh and No Exit, and now we have Deep Water.
Yes, this picture started development under the Fox 2000 label all the way back in 2013. The film was sold to New Regency in 2018, after the Disney merger publicly got underway in 2017, but before the merger was completed in 2019. And in the end, Disney ended up distributing the film anyway through 20th Century Studios by way of Hulu.
Deep Water was adapted from a novel by the great Patricia Highsmith, whose works have already begat such perennial cinematic favorites as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. This particular adaptation was handled by screenwriters Sam Levinson (He previously wrote and directed Malcolm and Marie, that makes sense here.) and Zach Helm (He last wrote and directed — and later disowned — Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. What the fuck he’s doing here, I couldn’t tell you.)
In the director’s chair is Adrian Lyne, still most famous for kick-starting the erotic thriller trend with Fatal Attraction all the way back in 1987. Alas, the subsequent 35 years have proven that the erotic thriller genre is supremely high-risk/high-reward. For every success on the level of Eyes Wide Shut or Gone Girl, we’ve seen a dozen flops on the level of Body of Evidence or (gods help us) Showgirls. And keep in mind, those are just the movies that err too heavily on the side of smut — go too far the other way, and you get a film like To Die For: A thriller too intellectual and not smutty enough, so it flies right over the target audience’s heads and ends up tragically forgotten.
Hell, Lyne is a specialist in the genre of erotic thrillers, and he still misses more often than he hits. In the 35 years since Fatal Attraction, he’s come out with Jacob’s Ladder (more of a psychological horror than an erotic thriller), Indecent Proposal (a box office smash that got critically panned and subsequently forgotten), the 1997 adaptation of Lolita (barely got released at all), and Unfaithful (forgotten by audiences when the novelty of a Diane Lane sex scene wore off).
Put it all together with Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas — two actors on top of the world right now — and this movie really could’ve gone either way. In retrospect, I suppose it was inevitable that the film collapsed into such a mess.
This is the story of Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a married couple respectively played by Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. Vic doesn’t drink, doesn’t dance, doesn’t talk or get out much, and he mostly spends all day at home with his young daughter (Trixie, played by Grace Jenkins). By contrast, Melinda is a much younger woman who just wants to drink and dance and party all day.
The kicker is that Melinda has a reputation for sleeping around. In fact, she delights in seducing any number of hot younger men right in front of her husband’s face. And it’s not like this is any kind of open marriage — Vic never sleeps around, and Melinda flies into a jealous hypocritical rage if Vic ever even thinks of having sex with another woman. Vic is obviously miserable, and Melinda is clearly better suited to a single lifestyle. Melinda has a ton of men she bangs on the side without her husband’s consent, and he’s visibly upset about it to the point where he’s “allegedly” killed one or two of his wife’s extramarital lovers already.
To be clear, the film does give a lot of lip service to the notion of individuality in the context of marriage. Each and every relationship will have its own set of rules regarding how far the partners are willing and able to trust each other, the extent to which the partners will have their own private lives, boundaries, and so on. It’s a perfectly valid question with regards to where that line is and how that line can be drawn.
The problem is that these filmmakers aren’t the least bit interested in finding that line. They’re interested in blowing right past that line in portraying the most extreme possible scenario of two psychopaths engaging in murder and infidelity through a hopelessly toxic marriage.
Part of the problem here is with the source material. In the original book, Vic would allow Melinda to sleep around with whomever she wanted so the both of them wouldn’t have to go through all the time and trouble of a divorce. This was perfectly sensible when Highsmith first wrote the book, more than a decade before no-fault divorces were legalized and mainstreamed in 1969.
Over 50 years later, any couple in this situation would’ve gotten divorced ages ago. In fact, Vic and Miranda are both asked point-blank why they don’t get a divorce or at least go into marriage counseling, and neither one of them ever comes up with a halfway decent answer. The best we’ve got is that they’re staying together for Trixie’s sake, but that loses muster when it’s plainly obvious how this toxic marriage is hurting the poor girl.
Moreover, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Vic is independently wealthy (he could afford to retire early after inventing a special computer chip used in drone warfare) and Melinda doesn’t seem to have any kind of job at all. They have a really sweet kid who’s apparently going to a wonderful school. The both of them are living in an opulent home, all of their friends appear to be independently wealthy as well, and they spend all their time partying at enormous houses crammed from floor to ceiling with nameless extras. In summary, the Van Allens would have a perfectly wonderful life if they didn’t keep making their own problems for no reason at all, and as a rule, I have zero sympathy for any such characters.
What about the supporting cast? Well, we’ve got Lil Rey Howery playing yet another comic relief best friend, Tracy Letts is on hand as the self-appointed moral arbiter of the story, and Kristin Connolly appears as Letts’ wife. I love all of these actors, but none of them are talented enough to elevate such ineffectual and rock-stupid characters.
Speaking of actors who’ve done better work elsewhere, Ben Affleck is basically rolling out his old “Gone Girl” routine. It’s still effective, sure, but it makes a huge difference working under a master like David Fincher as opposed to a washed-up one-trick pony like Adrian Lyne. The one actor bringing something new to the table is Ana de Armas, here playing a character designed to be unsympathetic. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that from her before, certainly not since she went mainstream. It’s not exactly her comfort zone, but she hardly humiliates herself in the attempt.
“But what about the erotic content?” I hear you ask. Ana de Armas gets topless. That’s it. She’s shown a lot more skin in far steamier sex scenes than this one, and she will most assuredly have more explicit scenes than this in the future. To wit: Later this year, Netflix is releasing an NC-17 biopic about Marilyn freaking Monroe, starring de Armas as the GOAT of sex symbols. No way in hell will anyone be talking about Deep Water after that movie comes out in a few months.
Deep Water is a dud. Everyone in the cast has done better work elsewhere in this lane, and the filmmakers don’t show anywhere near enough intelligence or effort to make the themes relevant. This “erotic thriller” falls apart because the eroticism isn’t arousing enough, nor the thrills compelling enough to compensate for such deeply unsympathetic characters with such flimsy motivations.
Everyone involved — even and especially Adrian Lyne — is better than this, and the film is pitifully less than the sum of its parts. Absolutely not recommended.