by Jack Sommersby
Could've been a contender, but it settles for easy effects and illogical plot turns to appease the mainstream popcorn-munching masses. What a shame.The psychological thriller Fatal Attraction is a gripping but ultimately unserious film detailing the living Hell a happily married New York family man finds himself in when the one-night stand he's indulged in refuses to play by "the rules." The man is one Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas), a lawyer whose firm represents a publishing house whose assistant editor is one Alex Forrest (Glenn Close); during a weekend when Dan's loving wife Beth (Anne Archer) is away upstate visiting her parents and looking at a house for sale, Dan and Alex, after attending a business-related Saturday meeting, go to dinner, mutually flirt, and go back to Alex's loft for some hot and heavy sex. Dan leaves the next morning and returns home, only for a message on the answering machine from his wife to sock home his infidelity: Douglas, who can sometimes be a remote actor, serves up to the camera a grief-stricken look that's probably the best shot in the film; Dan already wishes he could take back what he's done but is helpless to do so, and when Alex phones his apartment right afterward, Dan, whose personal "space" has now been violated, segues into worried-stricken. But that doesn't stop Dan from accepting Alex's invitation to come over to her place for lunch: at first, we think the man a fool, but Douglas, lucidly conveying Everyman temptation, makes believable Dan's glandular susceptibility. They again have sex, and Alex becomes belligerent when Dan announces he has to go home and take care of things before Beth gets back; while giving Dan a passionate good-bye kiss, we see Alex's hands are leaving a red-like substance on Dan's face -- blood, that is, from both of Alex's wrists that she's slashed. Dan tends to Alex's wounds, spends the night watching over her, and goes home the next morning, assuring Alex that he will indeed call her sometime. Thus far the director, Adrian Lyne, whose previous picture was the ludicrous Kim Basinger/Mickey Rourke soft-core 9 1/2 Weeks, which strove for a kinky eroticism that its maker's mechanical commercial-background approach neutralized, has handled the first stage of James Dearden's screenplay with superlative tact. Nothing is forced or overstated, instead conveyed with equal doses of style and control -- in other words, the direct opposite of Lyne's box-office smash Flashdance from four years prior. Where's he been hiding his talent?
"A Second-Rate 'Play Misty for Me'"
Dan wants nothing more than to start his Monday anew, but it's Tuesday already and Alex has made an unannounced visit to his office, where she apologizes for her wrist-slashing episode and offers a start-over -- she has two tickets to Madame Butterfly, the opera both she and Dan listened to during their Sunday-afternoon lunch, and will he accompany her to it? No, it wouldn't be a good idea, Dan replies. Soon thereafter Dan starts receiving phone calls from Alex at both home and office until he agrees to meet with her: she announces that she's pregnant by him; Dan offers to pay for an abortion; but the thirty-seven-year-old Alex, with a waning biological clock, is intent on having the child, and won't Dan want to be a part of it? Again, the answer is no. It's here that the film can go either way -- responsibly, emphasizing the dilemma that while Dan wants to pretend his and Alex's weekend never happened, the pregnant Alex can't; irresponsibly, where Alex is made increasingly emotionally unstable so all our sympathy swings over to Dan. To the film's credit, it's about half and half, which is nevertheless inadequate because the last third is one-hundred-percent pro-Dan, and that's a cop-out. In Clint Eastwood's directorial debut, 1971's Play Misty for Me, Eastwood's single ladies-man DJ found himself stalked and terrorized by a woman he had a one-night-stand with; it was a fine film, and didn't require much in the way of complexity in that a pregnancy didn't figure into the mix. Here, it does (regardless of one's stance on abortion), and rather than Dan walking a tightrope between hero and anti-hero, Dearden stacks the deck in having Alex partake in Movieland villainous actions, so it's only Dan who's made out to be the victim. Granted, Alex refuses to honor her part of the bargain (she tells Dan, "You play fair with me, I'll play fair with you"), but whenever Dan finds himself violating the law (breaking into Alex's loft to see if he can find out that maybe he's not the only one she's having sex with; assaulting her after his wife is hospitalized due to Alex's semi-kidnapping his child), they're made "excusable" crimes. Jerry-built and wildly uneven, Fatal Attraction's central flaw is made all the more enraging because it's exceedingly well-made and -acted. (An inept exploitation film wouldn't initially involve us with a story and characters to where we'd hold it to artistic integrity.)
Contextually, the film is a cheat, but its technical aspects in the directing, editing, scoring, and lighting departments are world-class. Lyne shrouds the film in a richly textured atmosphere that clings like a vise -- you're getting the squeeze put on you, but it's done with such crackerjack precision that you're not likely to care. And unlike Brian De Palma's sex thrillers, it's not chock-full of irksome plot holes. (Well, there are a couple: Alex managing to pick Dan's child up at school without permission or a note; Dan not taking proper safety precautions at his house once he knows the extent of danger Alex poses.) And the acting, even in the smallest supporting roles, is outstanding. Close, not anyone's idea of a femme fatale, starts from within and etches a multi-layered portrait so true that even when the writing leaves her cruelly exposed she comes across as organic. Archer hits no wrong notes even when a potentially galvanizing scene where Dan admits his affair isn't the emotional powerhouse it could be. But this is Douglas's show. There's hardly an emotion he isn't called upon to express, and he does so beautifully; gone is the stolid shield that kept his heroes in The Star Chamber and The Jewel of the Nile from actively engaging us, vividly present is an actor feeling through each and every line reading and always staying in character -- this may just be the best adulterous-husband characterization ever committed to celluloid. Yet as persuasive the acting is and superb the technical contributions, Fatal Attraction simply can't overcome the most ludicrous of finales, where not only is Alex turned into a one-dimensional baddie, but she even rises from the presumed dead for one last attempted slash of the kitchen knife. (Logically, what with the previous reference to the suicidal scene in Madame Butterfly, whose soundtrack Alex plays over and over after she's been jilted by Dan, we're led to expect quite a different finale.) Plus, there are unnerving minor banalities. When Alex spies on Dan and his happy family in their new upstate house, she runs to the bushes and vomits; and unless I'm reading this wrong, because a ready-for-action Dan is deprived of sex with Beth because she allows their child to sleep in their bed the night before they're to leave to see her parents, Dan's libido is all the more vulnerable to Alex's come-ons the day after. For all its positives, Fatal Attraction is a dishonest, sensationalistic jerk-off.Not a complete waste of time, but when it warrants no more stars than the Morgan Fairchild "The Seduction," you know it's got its problems.
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originally posted: 02/18/14 21:04:00