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'Deep Water' is a disjointed take on an unhappy couple's open marriage

Director Adrian Lyne's comeback after a 20-year absence is one of the selling points of Deep Water, his new adaptation of a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel.

08:48

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Other segments from the episode on March 18, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Interview with William Hurt; Review of Life & Beth; Review of Deep Water

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. It's been 20 years since we've had a new movie from Adrian Lyne, the director known for such erotic thrillers as "9 1/2 Weeks," "Fatal Attraction" and "Indecent Proposal." Now Lyne is back with another tale of adulterous desire. It's called "Deep Water" and stars Ben Affleck. The movie is adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel and begins streaming today on Hulu. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The 81-year-old English director Adrian Lyne made his mark in Hollywood decades ago with movies like "Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal" and "Unfaithful" - slick, ridiculous and generally irresistible tales of wayward spouses and reckless desires. His comeback after a 20-year absence is one of the selling points of "Deep Water," his new adaptation of a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel. Another is that the movie stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, who began dating while working on the film back in 2019. As you may have heard, they've since broken up. And the movie, which was made for theaters but delayed multiple times by the pandemic, is finally being released on Hulu with a conspicuous lack of fanfare. And so like "Eyes Wide Shut" with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman or "By The Sea" with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, "Deep Water" offers the titillating spectacle of a real-life ill-fated couple playing a fictional ill-fated couple.

For what it's worth, Affleck and de Armas don't have much on-screen chemistry, which seems somewhat intentional. They play Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a fabulously wealthy couple who live with their young daughter in New Orleans. They have an open marriage, at least where Melinda's concerned. She spends most of her time chasing dreamy, mostly dull-witted young men around town and sometimes inviting them over to the house for dinner. Vic is good at hiding his jealousy up to a point. Part of the fun of the movie is the way he manages to express his contempt for Melinda and her many lovers without losing his cool.

In an early scene, Melinda brings over her latest boyfriend for dinner, and Vic makes him a grilled cheese sandwich, from which Melinda takes a bite.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEEP WATER")

BEN AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) How's the grilled cheese?

BRENDAN MILLER: (As Joel Dash) Actually, it's amazing.

AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) Oh, good.

ANA DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) Can I have some - a bite? (Whispering) I don't like lobster bisque.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)

DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) Oh, my God.

MILLER: (As Joel Dash) Right (laughter)?

DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) This is amazing.

AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) Melinda kind of has the palate of a 12-year-old. Our first date, I took her to the best restaurant in the city, and she ordered mac and cheese.

DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) Yes. It's like he was ashamed to be with me.

AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) No. I just realized you were ordering off the children's menu to save room for alcohol.

DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) You see, Vic never drinks.

AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen, softly) I drink sometimes.

DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) Sometimes I think he's not normal 'cause normal people can let go.

AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) Do you wish that I were normal, Melinda?

DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) My God, all the time.

AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) 'Cause if I were normal, I don't think Joel would be over here having dinner with us.

DE ARMAS: (As Melinda Van Allen) You don't have to be rude.

AFFLECK: (As Vic Van Allen) I'm not being rude. I made lobster bisque.

CHANG: Highsmith's icy cynicism makes for an intriguing but far-from-seamless fit with Lyne's soapy style. He and his writers, Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, have moved the story up to the present day and given the plot a few tweaks. But the general premise is the same. When Melinda's lovers start turning up dead, rumors begin to spread around town that Vic was responsible. The writers have also retained some of Highsmith's more eccentric flourishes, including Vic's prized snail collection. If you've ever wanted to see Ben Affleck look on affectionately while snails slither across his open palm, this is the movie for you.

At times, "Deep Water" seems to move as slowly as those snails. Sometimes it's a self-aware hoot, and sometimes it's a disjointed drag. Significant chunks of the story seem to have wound up on the cutting room floor, particularly as it speeds toward an almost comically abrupt ending. Meanwhile, the director keeps piling on his signature touches, from the Architectural Digest furnishings to the tasteful nudity. It wouldn't be an Adrian Lyne movie if the female lead didn't sit around soaking in an antique bathtub. The story does raise the intriguing possibility that Melinda and Vic might be engaging in some kinky, extended role play. But whatever game these two are up to isn't, in the end, terribly interesting.

De Armas, who was terrific in movies like "Knives Out" and "No Time To Die" seems to have been directed mainly to flirt, drink and scream at the top of her lungs. Affleck, always an underrated actor, fares better. As in "Gone Girl," another potboiler about a loveless marriage, he excels at playing the golden boy gone to seed. Even before we learn how Vic earned his millions - he invented a microchip now used in drone warfare - there's something ominous and inscrutable beneath his calm surface. It's enough to trigger the suspicions of a nosy neighbor played by a typically sharp Tracy Letts.

What's refreshing about "Deep Water," especially in contrast to "Fatal Attraction" and "Unfaithful," is that it lacks the moralistic streak that has often marred Lyne's work, where characters stray from happy marriages and wind up paying the price in a flurry of horrific violence. This movie slyly inverts that setup, partly by making the Van Allens' marriage so unhappy to begin with. Like Highsmith, the director seems to harbor no illusions about how truly appalling people can be. And his honesty is bracing. I can't call "Deep Water" a good movie exactly, but I can't deny that there's something good about having Adrian Lyne back.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Deep Water," now streaming on Hulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY DENK PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 20 IN D MINOR, K. 466: II. ROMANCE")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, classical pianist Jeremy Denk. He has a new memoir, which he describes as a story of piano lessons, what he learned from his teachers and the music he learned to interpret. It's also about his pivotal artistic moments, as well as the failures and frustrations along the way. His new memoir is called "Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, In Music Lessons." Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY DENK PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 20 IN D MINOR, K. 466: II. ROMANCE")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY DENK PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 20 IN D MINOR, K. 466: II. ROMANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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