USA 2002 : John Polson : 84 mins

IN BRIEF : By-the-numbers, teen-targeted retread of Fatal Attraction is watchable for the first half, but when the psycho-bitch villainess goes off the rails, so does the (mercifully short) movie.

Michael Douglas is still best remembered in some quarters for Fatal Attraction – so perhaps it isn’t surprising that his production company was instrumental in bringing straightforward teen-targeted variant Swimfan to the screen. Jesse Bradford steps into Douglas’s shoes as teenage swimming champ Ben Cronin, Shiri Appleby filling the thankless ‘Anne Archer’ part as his devoted girlfriend Amy. And in the crucial Glenn Close ‘Alex’ role we have Traffic starlet Erika Christensen as cellist Madison Bell, the new girl at Ben and Amy’s school who wastes little time in distracting the lad from the straight and narrow. They enjoy what’s supposed to be a one-off quickie in the school pool – but, this being a movie, things rapidly get complicated. When Ben spurns the persistent Madison’s advances, her desire for revenge rapidly spirals out of control.

And, sadly, so does the movie. Aussie director Polson (whose acting credits include The Boys and Mission: Impossible 2) keeps things ticking along reasonably well for the first hour or so – as Ben’s hard-ass Coach Simkins (Dan Hedaya, underused as ever) so aptly puts it, “Focus is key!” But when Madison’s push comes to murderous shove, Polson cope with the change in gears. Cinematography Giles Nuttgens abruptly switches to a darker, murkier, more contrasty film stock, editor Sarah Flack goes cut-crazy to signify Madison’s unstable mental equilibrium (to a soundtrack of skirling knives, but to little avail.

No amount of tricksy pyrotechnics can disguise the increasing absurdities of Charles Bohl and Phillip Schneider’s screenplay, culminating in a distinctly desperate and clunky double climax that smells suspiciously of focus-group rewriting – perhaps appropriate, given Fatal Attraction‘s famous post-production ending-change. This isn’t even the first teen retread of Adrian Lyne’s box-office hit – few people remember 1996’s Fear, despite the fact that it showcased no less than Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon.

Bradford and Christensen don’t seem quite so distinctive screen presences – just as she can’t quite banish the persistent spectre of her deep-voiced lookalike Julia Stiles, the engaging Bradford does seem rather distractingly short to be a high-school swimmer – like everyone else on view, he’s also visibly too old for his role. And, the poster on his bedroom wall notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine a less likely veteran Sonic Youth fan than Ben. (Or should that be ‘sonicyouthfan’?)

At least Fear had the originality to switch the sexes around, with Wahlberg tormenting nice-girl Reese and her beleaguered family. Swimfan, on the other hand, is marked by a very old-school form of movie misogyny, with Madison a tiresomely familiar brand of bitch-on-wheels. But, in the early stages at least, Swimfan does show some welcome signs of intriguing individuality. Madison is from ‘down south’ (“I had to get outta there – it was so stifling”) and it’s notable that the aunt’s house in which she’s staying has one or two touches of the gothic mansion about it, especially in comparison with the featureless real-estate occupied by white-bread Ben and Amy.

Christensen is even occasionally shot to resemble Bette Davis, imperiously commanding trellised balconies, her luxuriant curly hair blowing in the breeze before an ivy-strewn colonnades as the neighbourhood dogs bark their ignored warnings. She even has a distinctly Faulknerian sweaty-weirdo bookworm cousin – named Dante, no less, and played by James Debello, who was so fantastic in the vastly superior Crime + Punishment in Suburbia. From Dante’s literary perspective, Madison could be seen as a dangerous eruption of Welty/O’Connor colour in this drab, slightly anonymous Cheever/Updike commuter-belt: when she visits Ben in his her Jezebel-red top is a blaze of sensual colour among the cool, neon glow of the photogenic, blue-tiled pool.

Such watery shots are rather classier than this TV-movie-ish material deserves – cinematographer Nuttgens was recruited on the basis of his work in the adult-oriented The Deep End, a title which Polson must have regretted not being able to use. It’s hard to remember a more awkward-sounding name for a movie than Swimfan, which started life as swimfan85 – the internet chat-handle used by Madison when ‘cyber-stalking’ Ben, which lives on in promotional materials which occasionally refer to the film as swimf@n in a way that suddenly seems paleolithic.

As the poor box-office of fear dot com indicates, web-based titles are no longer considered hip. Hence the change in title for Swimfan, a film made with a very specific demographic target in mind: it was released on the first weekend of the new US high-school term with the smash-and-grab aim of attracting kids out on dates, and worked a treat on those terms, hauling in $11m to top the charts. The moral lessons are quite crushingly blatant: experimentation with other partners may be tempting, but it is a Very Bad Thing – best to stick with what you’ve got. Girls – keep an eye on your boys. Boys – don’t shag around. It’s that simple – those in search of deeper, more interesting waters are advised to rent Crime + Punishment in Suburbia instead.

9th September, 2002
(seen same day, Warner Village Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young
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