Deep Water review: An un-erotic non-thriller that's still kinda watchable
Can a snail be sexy? How about a bridge? These and other questions may tickle your fancy when you watch Deep Water, a ridiculous but involving drama streaming on Hulu this Friday. Patricia Highsmith's original novel about a murderous marital crisis came out in 1957. That's 65 years of evolving relationship dynamics to grapple with. And the film marks the first directorial effort in two decades from Adrian Lyne, famous for making the kind of glossy erotic thrillers nobody even tries anymore. Leads Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas coupled and decoupled during the years of release delay, so Deep Water arrives a triple throwback: an old story in a dead genre starring exes. It's also a goof, with an odd charm wildly at odds with the leaden melodrama. This train wreck gawks at itself.
Affleck and de Armas play the unhappily married Van Allens. Vic got rich designing some kind of drone warfare computer chip, and now his job is something something web apps and something something publishing. Mostly, he bikes around and takes care of their precocious daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins). Melinda stays busy getting busy. Her affairs with various hot young dudes are not subtle. At a party full of close friends, she makes out with handsome doofus Joel (Brendan C. Miller), who compliments Vic for being such a chill cuckold. Vic calmly mentions another "friend" of Melinda's who recently disappeared — and strongly implies that he did the disappearing.
Is Vic killing Melinda's boyfriends? Everyone assumes his confession is a joke. Melinda thinks he's too boring for that kind of excitement. Unfortunately, I agree. Deep Water takes Vic's perspective even as it keeps his actions mysterious, and Affleck never locates the jealous pulse to power all the spiraling tension. Melinda's accelerating promiscuity should torment him, but it mainly exists as gossip for their social circle. That includes local writer Don Wilson (Tracy Letts), who takes an interest in the murder rumors. Vic's best friends, played by Lil Rel Howery and Dash Mihok, are mostly there to stare wide-eyed at Melinda's dalliances and offer grim husbandly condolences.
Lil Rel Howery! Now we're getting to the good stuff. Affleck's morose blankness makes it hard to understand why anyone would be pals with Vic, and Howery's role could just be the Black Best Friend cliché. But his low-key comic energy pulls the torpid romantic plot in a more self-aware direction. He seems like a regular person who just wandered into a softcore noir; his double takes are quadruple. You get a similar vibe from the close attention paid to young Trixie, who keeps asking their Alexa to play "Old MacDonald" yet seems to have complete who-cares awareness of all the bad things her parents are up to.
Meanwhile, de Armas does all the acting Affleck doesn't. It's a sing-on-the-piano, third-base-on-the-dance-floor kind of performance. Melinda is said to be foreign (de Armas is Cuban), which a couple of characters hilariously pinpoint as an explanation for her flagrant actions. "America's so suffocating!" she declares, after Vic begs her not to drunkenly disrobe in front of their horrified babysitter. She openly taunts her husband with her affairs; at one point, she banishes him to story time with Trixie, so she can screw her latest boy toy downstairs. "If you were married to anyone else," she tells him later, "You'd be so f---ing bored you'd kill yourself."
Despite her brassy assurance, Deep Water obeys the most normative rules its genre, with de Armas showing off more skin than any of her paramours. Still, it lacks the sizzle of Lyne's earlier films. Do we laugh more at sex scenes now? Or are these sex scenes just funny? (Prepare yourself for the biting.) The silliness may also come from adapting Highsmith's tale into modern times. Melinda is supposed to feel trapped by Vic, but that doesn't read anymore. She mainly comes off as a charming sex-positive polygamist, until the film worrisomely ponders if all she really wants is attention. So there's a frustrating lack of specificity in the central relationship, which sucks the air out of any one-on-one scene between the couple. We're miles from Unfaithful, where Diane Lane and Richard Gere gave stunner performances while embodying equivalent strains of carnal desperation and adulterous suspicion.
That 2002 film is Lyne's masterwork, embedding all his gaudy stimulations in rueful yearning. By comparison, Deep Water stays shallow. There's plenty to gape at if you want a weekend rubberneck, and some eccentric flourishes of genuine personality. Vic has pet snails — and gang, this man really cares about his snails. All of Melinda's boyfriends are cast, accidentally or on purpose, to look exactly half Affleck's age and size. The New Orleans setting means that every house has an aspirational deck, and that a boozy-stoned pool party gets broken up by a tropical shower. The final act requires everyone to suddenly become 63% stupider, though there are sublime pleasures in the late plot turns. (Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that someone brings a cute puppy to a murder.) Deep Water isn't really thrilling or erotic, but it accomplishes a kind of diagonal camp sincerity, plummeting its glamorous characters into ever-tawdrier situations. I wouldn't marry it, but I wouldn't kill it. Remind me, what's the third option? C+
Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas star in this erotic thriller about an unhappily married couple tangled in a web of infidelity and murder.