Fatal Attraction

September 23, 2011

Paramount Pictures, via a heavy advertising campaign, is clearly positioning Fatal Attraction as the big thriller of the season. Its confidence is probably well-placed, since this movie is as slick and manipulative as they come, which is to say, it’s also often distastefully effective.

It’s from director Adrian Lyne, and Fatal Attraction displays the same sort of superficiality and gloss as his Flashdance and 9 ½ Weeks. Unlike those films, here Lyne at least has subject matter that is innately compelling.

The story is an utterly simple littler shocker. Married man has a one-night stand with a woman; woman turns out to be crazy and hounds the man and his family; man and family must defend themselves. It’s the kind of devilishly relentless plot that might have burbled up out of the nightmare novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson.

However, Lyne dresses things up a bit. The man (Michael Douglas) is a high-priced Manhattan lawyer; the woman (Glenn Close) works for a publishing company he represents. They meet at a party and spend a torrid weekend together while his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter are away. When Douglas tries to break off the affair, Close insists on pursuing it, and she starts calling his office, sending him mad taped messages, and finally showing up in his living room.

Eventually her madness leads to a violent series of conclusions, and Lyne orchestrates the thriller aspects of the movie with some sledgehammer success. He’s still a terribly obvious filmmaker: Are there many directors gauche enough to cut away from a lovemaking scene to a percolating pot of coffee?

Amid the sound and fury, the three main actors are working hard. Anne Archer is one of those people about whom film critics keep wondering—Gee, when is this smart/sexy/funny actress going to get in a good movie? In Fatal Attraction, she suffers a lot, but she does get a few licks in.

Douglas trades on his sagging jowls and hollowing eyes to suggest this man’s moral shiftiness, and he’s pretty good casting. Douglas is about 10 times more interesting when he’s playing weak characters than when he’s playing good guys—a fact he seems finally to be realizing.

Then there’s Glenn Close, who, since The World According to Garp and The Big Chill, has been working to change her image: No more Ms. Nice Guy. She’s certainly not nice here. Most good actors are susceptible to psycho roles, because they’re so darn much fun to play, and Close is probably as good in this role as anyone, quite chilling at times. But finally there’s nothing to this part, regardless of its showiness; the woman’s crazy and she scares people. Neither the movie nor Close can give the character any more meaning than that.

Lyne seems to be mining a number of different subtexts, including fear of women, fear of the city, and (so help me) fear of telephones. But the main undercurrent is probably fear of AIDS. While the disease is never mentioned, the movie is after all about the horror of a casual sexual encounter that produces a lingering, fatal aftermath. In its grim way, Fatal Attraction is a hysterical, anxiety-streaked recruiting poster for fidelity.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1987

The picture was a smash, confirming Douglas’s big run of significant parts and changing up Close’s image, at least for a while. (Great headline from the National Enquirer or equivalent rag: “The Most Hated Woman in America!” next to a photo of dear Glenn Close.) The movie’s a real scare show, very Old Testament, seemingly designed to shock the rubes into toeing the line. And speaking of Lyne, he hasn’t had a feature out since 2002’s Unfaithful, an attempt to capture the old magic.