Among certain film critics, myself included, the films of British director Adrian Lyne have a near mythical status. It’s not even that his films were all that great—Fatal Attraction, perhaps, notwithstanding, they were mostly glossy trash. (Some of his other titles include Indecent Proposal, aka “I’ll Give You a Million Dollars For One Night With Your Wife,” and the food-porntastic 9 1/2 Weeks.) They were silly, they were sexist, but they generally featured adults doing adult things in expensive clothing and well-appointed settings. And more importantly, they featured a lot of sex. (The phrase most often association with Lyne’s work is “erotic thriller.”)
The sad truth is, there really is no sex in films anymore—certainly not in the kinds of films that play at multiplexes. The last “sexy” mainstream film was 50 Shades of Grey, which was based on Twilight fan fiction, so draw your own conclusions about its level of sophistication. This is mostly because studios are targeting teenage boys (and adults with the taste of teenage boys) who have expressed a disgust with seeing sex on film. It’s boring. It’s embarrassing. And it’s unnecessary—Pornhub is just a click away! The kinds of adults who draw a distinction between pornography and eroticism (let alone, sex scenes that reveal character) don’t really have much of a say anymore when it comes to mainstream cinema. When was the last time a Marvel hero got it on?
This is why, when it was announced that Adrian Lyne would be making his first film in 20 years (!), a—yes—erotic thriller called Deep Water starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, I was so excited.
Sexytime is back, baby!
Well, kind of. Having now seen Deep Water, which is making its debut on Hulu this Friday, I can’t help but to wonder: Why? Why did Lyne come out of retirement for this tepid story, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel? What about this particular story drew him in, rekindled that old filmmaking flame, lit a creative spark?
Because honestly? Deep Water is dull as dishwater. It seems to have all the elements of the kind of upscale, sophisticated trash I’ve been craving, but it’s missing some key factors: dramatic tension, believable character behavior, and, yes, sex. I’ve seen good Adrian Lyne erotic thrillers—and this ain’t one of them.
Here’s the premise. Affleck plays Vic, a flagrantly bestubbled, middle-aged man who was able to retire early thanks to a chip he created that the U.S. military uses to make drones. He mostly spends time riding his bike, caring for his school-age daughter, or in his greenhouse tending to his snails. (Your guess is as good as mine.) He’s married to the younger Melinda (de Armas), who is free-spirited, sexy, and doesn’t like being told what to do. They have the aforementioned precocious daughter named Trixie (Grace Jenkins), who seems more plugged into the dynamic between her parents than she lets on.
Vic and Melinda have an arrangement—sort of. She has affairs with dashingly handsome men (the first one we meet, Joel, has a bit of a young Brad Pitt thing going for him; another is played by Euphoria’s strapping Jacob Elordi). Vic knows about these affairs and tolerates them—or does he? Mostly he glares and glowers and clenches his teeth. (There are numerous closeup shots of Affleck doing just that at parties, as he watches his wife cavort with other men.) This might make sense if he were wildly attracted to Melinda—if his behavior was powered by uncontrollable lust. But Vic doesn’t seem particularly lustful or full of any sort of passion, for that matter. He’s stoic to a fault, which the film wrongly thinks makes him intriguing. While Vic and Melinda do have sex, they mostly sleep in separate rooms. There’s a moment where the couple has a fight in which Melinda suggests Vic ravage her, and he’s literally like, “Nah, I’m good.”
Things get interesting (or at least interesting adjacent) when the great Tracy Letts shows up as a would-be crime writer who has just moved into the neighborhood. He becomes obsessed with Vic and believes him to be a very bad man. But is he?
Look, Deep Water does have some things to recommend. The house that Vic and Melinda share is aspirationally beautiful—although if anyone can explain how a stairwell on the porch leads directly inside without the benefit of a door, I’d greatly appreciate it. Lyne still knows how to compose a lean and artful shot. And de Armas makes for an alluring femme fatale—she deserves better than this. (Quick, someone put her in a Pedro Almodovar film!) In some ways, I’m happy to have even a simulacrum of a movie for grownups. But I’ve been waiting 20 years for the new Adrian Lyne to drop, as it were. This wasn’t worth the wait.