An Affair to Forget
The psychotic-admirer thriller emerged in 1987 with Fatal Attraction and has since spawned countless followers. It’s a subgenre I hold dear, my personal favorites being the deliciously trashy Fear and the manipulative-yet-gripping The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Though its ’90s heyday may be behind us, the formula refuses to die, proving to be a reliable template for lowbrow, frequently “erotic” fare. Just in the past few years we’ve had The Intruder (psychotic ex-homeowner), Greta (psychotic mother-figure), and Ma (psychotic booze hookup). Now Netflix is getting in on the action with Fatal Affair, a movie as lazy as its title.
The opening scenes wield exposition like a cudgel, rapidly and artlessly dispensing the essential background: Ellie (Nia Long) is a successful lawyer about to leave her firm to go into business for herself; she and her husband Marcus (Stephen Bishop) just moved into a swanky new house in Malibu; their daughter Brittany (Aubrey Cleland) is away at college. Ellie’s marriage is going through a rough patch: despite their love for one another, she and Marcus haven’t slept together in some time. During her final case at her firm, Ellie runs into David (Omar Epps), an old college friend working as a tech consultant (read: hacker). There’s an instant spark between them, as we can see from their red-hot hand-touch when they both reach for the same stack of papers.
After meeting for drinks to celebrate a break in the case, David and Ellie hop to a nightclub, where the titular affair takes place: in this case, a tame bathroom tryst that only makes it to first base. Ellie stops herself before things can go any further, but of course, David has other things in mind. Soon enough he’s “accidentally” running into Ellie on the street, texting her incessantly, and staking out her home.
The rest is slavishly predictable, not so much following the rules of its format as listing them out scene by scene. After David and Ellie’s make-out session, Ellie’s single bestie Courtney, “dying to get her flirt on,” ends up dating – who else? – David. Being a complete idiot, Courtney readily believes David when he tells her that Ellie came on to him, taking the word of a man she’s known for a matter of weeks over that of her closest friend. Only slightly less clueless is Marcus, who’s unfazed by David’s deranged rant about his ex-wife during a round of golf. In fact, all the main characters become morons at some point to further the plot, including David, whose own electronic devices are incredibly unsecure given his profession.
David’s hacking ability is the one remotely novel aspect of the movie, and it makes for a few unsettling scenes of voyeurism, but its intriguing possibilities are left only half-explored. And while Omar Epps is suitably dead-eyed in the role, he sleepwalks whenever the script requires him to go big. During the climactic home invasion scene, where he “crazily” dances to an ’80s funk tune, he looks absolutely miserable. It’s hard to blame him, or any of the other actors, considering the feeble dialogue they have to work with.
Fatal Affair has a glossy surface, with crisp, bright cinematography and some attractive shots of the California coastline. But look closer and the telltale signs of cheapness start to show: the soundtrack of B-Sides, the scarcity of extras, the impersonal interiors. This TV-movie aesthetic (soon to be known as the Netflix-movie aesthetic) is at its chintziest during the finale, which skimps on both stunt work and special effects. The whole movie is a curiously neutered affair, with tepid sex scenes and an aversion to violence. One scene of apparent murder later reveals that the victim was merely knocked unconscious, and the third-act showdown is a thrill-free anticlimax.
The subgenre Fatal Affair belongs to isn’t a high-minded one: it exists to induce a primal adrenaline rush through the terrifying scenario of being targeted by an obsessive psychopath. There’s a reason the formula has endured this long: in the right hands, it’s devastatingly effective. The problem with Fatal Affair, then, isn’t that it goes through the motions; it’s that it does so with no energy or panache whatsoever. I had thought it might be able match the cheap thrills of C-List entries like The Intruder or When the Bough Breaks, but the lifeless Fatal Affair lacks the crowd-pleasing commitment of even the junkiest guilty pleasures.