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

Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck play a couple whose marriage is not what it seems in <em>Deep Water.</em>
Claire Folger
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Courtesy of 20th Century Studio
Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck play a couple whose marriage is not what it seems in <em>Deep Water.</em>

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.

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. Another is that the movie's stars, Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, 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.

Vic and Melinda 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.

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.

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