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Don’t Expect Any Depth From Thriller Throwback ‘Deep Water’

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IN TOO DEEP De Armas plays the object of everybody's desire in Lyne's entertainingly ridiculous throwback thriller. - COURTESY OF CLAIRE FOLGER/20TH CENTURY STUDIOS
  • Courtesy Of Claire Folger/20th Century Studios
  • IN TOO DEEP De Armas plays the object of everybody's desire in Lyne's entertainingly ridiculous throwback thriller.

This week I chose between two forms of escapism. On TV, there was the Academy Awards ceremony with its usual wan witticisms and long-winded tributes to purported classics. Was it worth watching just for the possibility of a celebrity faux pas?

No, I decided, so I switched to Hulu to watch a piece of heirloom cheese that seems to have been cooling in a cellar since the early 1990s. Directed by Adrian Lyne, once known for blockbusters such as Fatal Attraction, Deep Water is a star-studded throwback to the days when sexy thrillers about adults doing adult things didn't go straight to the small screen. The movie's setting — an affluent part of New Orleans where nobody ever seems to do anything but dress up, dance and drink cocktails — offered just the right dose of fantasy.

It was all good. I finished it in time to catch up on the Oscar drama.

The deal

Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) is a lucky man. Having invented a chip that controls military drones, he has retired early to a handsomely renovated mansion with his young wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas); their adorable 6-year-old (Grace Jenkins); and a shed full of snails.

Yes, snails. Asked why he's so fond of the slimy slowpokes, Vic sagely notes that snails will cross great distances to rejoin their mates.

Fidelity may appeal to him, but it doesn't to Melinda. Every week, it seems, she's carrying on with a new lover, bringing her boy toys home and brazenly flaunting them in front of her husband and their friends.

Vic doesn't seem to mind — or does he? One of Melinda's lovers has gone missing. When Vic tells Melinda's new flame that he murdered the man, everyone in their circle dismisses the statement as a joke — except for an author of noir screenplays (Tracy Letts). His suspicions mount as more of Melinda's boyfriends meet unpleasant ends.

Will you like it?

Deep Water is based on a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel that, like so many of her psychological thrillers, starts from a simple but potent premise. What if a man accepted his wife's infidelity and then didn't? What if people refused to see the sociopath right in front of them because they were so used to dismissing him as a kindhearted weakling?

There's a ton to unpack in this story — cultural expectations of masculinity, the troubled concept of the "nice guy" and what actually drives Melinda's fevered promiscuity. Working from a screenplay by Zach Helm and "Euphoria" creator Sam Levinson, Lyne lets most of that baggage lie. The psychology of the story doesn't seem to interest him as much as its iconography — specifically, the opportunities it offers for slick visuals, pulsing beats and scene after scene of de Armas vamping it up.

The Cuban-born star gets the full Sharon Stone-in-the-'90s treatment; the camera is constantly on her bedroom eyes and gyrating body. At one point, Melinda grabs an apple from her daughter's lunch box and takes a big bite, in case you didn't know she represents woman as temptress. If anything motivates her, it appears to be narcissism; she's only interested in her husband once he drops the nice-guy act and turns dangerously possessive.

The problem with Affleck in the role of Vic is that he never seems particularly nice. His body is gym-toned; his eyes have a sharkish gleam. It doesn't help that we already associate the actor with the most vengeful version of Batman. If there ever were a time when Affleck could convince an audience that he was just a mild-mannered patsy — a snail among wolves — that moment has passed.

Because we're so aware of the controlled violence behind Vic's apparent passivity, it's tough to believe that no one on screen thinks he could hurt a fly. In its second half, Deep Water becomes a succession of scenes in which people underestimate Vic and pay the price, all culminating in a climactic chase so beautifully silly that it probably deserves some kind of place in movie history.

The best thing about that chase is how humble it is — just a bike and a car. The set piece offers none of the bells and whistles of modern blockbuster action, just a scenario that could (but probably wouldn't) happen in real life.

Don't get me wrong: If you're looking for a truly nail-biting suspense film or a meaningful drama, Deep Water isn't it. But if you miss the days when movies that looked like sinister Vogue spreads ruled the box office, maybe you'll enjoy this reminder of how fun (and terrible) those movies could be.

If you like this, try...

Foxes (1980; Vudu): It's a little hard to find, but for my money, Lyne's best movie was his more naturalistic first feature, in which Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie play California teens growing up too fast.

Fatal Attraction (1987; HBO Max, rentable): But perhaps Lyne's biggest hit was this glossy thriller in which Glenn Close plays an unstable woman who sleeps with Michael Douglas and promptly morphs into his stalker.

Angel Heart (1987; Starz, rentable): While Lyne makes a fairly tasteful use of New Orleans' local color, the same can't be said for Alan Parker, who brought Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet together in a NOLA-set erotic thriller that might represent the absurdist peak of the genre.