The Peter Sullivan-directed Fatal Affair (2020) is an impenitent reversion of the Adrian Lyne-directed thriller Fatal Attraction (1987) starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, except with African/American actors in a reversal of roles. It would have been more fitting had the title’s been reversed, since Fatal Attraction is about a married man’s one-night standing affair with a woman who comes back to haunt his family, whereas Fatal Affair focuses on a woman’s infidelity through an attraction, resulting in a lesser degree of adultery since she doesn’t engage in intercourse the way the characters in Fatal Attraction do. Ellie Warren (Nia Long) attempts to restore her passion in her marriage with Marcus Warren (Steven Bishop) after making the mistake of lying to him while she goes out dancing, making-out and one-step away from having sex with her old college flame David (Omar Epps) who she crosses paths with after twenty years of being apart.
The film opens with a teaser showing a passionate lovemaking affair in front of a fireplace as an African/American woman straddles a Caucasian man. When she goes to the kitchen to grab a glass of water, she returns to find her lover laying dead in a bloody bathtub with running water. Once she screams, she’s murdered from behind by what looks like an African/American man. This cliched opening sequence is reminiscent of many previous thrillers in cinema’s past. One can’t help but think of Wes Craven’s Scream (2000) where Drew Barrymore’s character was slashed. We’re aware that somewhere in the middle of second act of Fatal Affair the answers will be revealed in terms who killed who in this opening sequence, and why. But first, we need to sit through the paint-by-numbers scheme concocted by the filmmakers in an over-explanatory screenplay filled with dialogue that overly informs the audience on characters’ backstories in instances that should be revealed subtly by using indirect methods. Instead of showing us a characters emotions through acting and editing, they tell us everything through dialogue. The audience doesn’t need to know the details of Ellie and Marcus’ marriage through the mouths of the characters themselves in order to accurately conclude the state of their marital affairs. Their marriage issues should be conveyed through actions as opposed to informative dialogue. Cookie-cutter words written in a lackluster screenplay is exactly what we get in Fatal Affair – not just in dialogue, but in the plot.
Ellie is a lead counsel for a law firm in San Francisco. She crosses path with David, who’s a technical consultant on a recent case. What do you know? They went to college together. Which makes for a corny and uninventive plot contrivance, but we roll with the overutilized theme of a lead character who runs into a long-lost love. Ellie gives David her business card as it’s clearly apparent there’s still heat between her old flame David, even when they haven’t seen each other in twenty years. The spark is still prevalent between the two, but it’s clearly obvious to the eye that they’re acting as opposed to genuinely displaying the human condition in front of the camera – which is an incredibly difficult task to accomplish. Ellie’s husband Marcus is an architect. She warns him to take his time in returning to work because he’s still in recovery from an injury. The dialogue is too informative. It’s as if the actors are talking to the audience, when they should be talking to each other.
Ellie and Marcus have moved from the city of San Francisco to the outskirts of the greater Bay Area near a beach, but we’re never told where (probably somewhere in the Peninsula near Pacifica on the south side of the city). It’s refreshing to see the shots of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate bridge during the movie, but it’s use is overblown and overutilized. Ellie’s law firm is in the city, which justifies at least one establishing shot of the exteriors of San Francisco. The concept of “less is more” is obviously ignored from the director. We know San Francisco is beautiful; you don’t have to keep showing us its magnificence. This movie isn’t about the beautiful city Ellie commutes to for work; it’s about her unfaithful actions coming back to haunt her family. We’re shown far too many establishing shots that place more of an emphasis on the demographics of the film than its plot. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying, “Hey, look! We’re in San Francisco! Isn’t it beautiful?” Is this supposed to be an idea by the filmmakers? Compensating for the paint-by-numbers screenplay with gorgeous second-unit photography of arguably the most beautiful city in the world isn’t going to make your film look or feel any better or worse than it already it is. Keep showing us San Francisco’s beauty, it won’t make or break the film.
David keeps seeing Ellie at the firm and presses her to go out for drinks, only to get repetitively shot down. Until Ellie inevitably invites David to join her and her colleagues for dinner. But of course, her partners at the firm flake, leaving dinner for Ellie and David all to themselves. “One day you wake up twenty years later, and the person next to you feels like a complete stranger.” Ellie says to David in reference to her husband Marcus. This line of dialogue is a forced attempt to convey the unhappiness in her marriage. It’s implausible for her to have this emotional expression after she explains to David that she has “the perfect life and the perfect husband”. If Marcus is so perfect, then how can he be a “complete stranger”? Of course, what Ellie was alluding to is the inevitably of how people evolve over time; even those closest to us. But, for a woman to engage in acts of unfaithfulness, dialogue as such contradicts her intentions. Instead of praising Marcus’ perfection as a husband, she should have recited lines that suggested him being unable to satisfy her needs, which would have made sense for her acts of infidelity that are to follow. This is contradicting dialogue and a forced attraction between David and Ellie that doesn’t seem plausible. But, we try to believe it, because over two decades ago, we’re told that these two were hot and heavy for each other in college. Ellie lies to her husband of her whereabouts, and drinks with David lead to a nightclub lounge with affectionate slow dancing, twerks and twirls as David molests her in an empty ladies restroom. After removing her chonies, Ellie regretfully refuses to engage in sex. Did Ellie cheat on Marcus at this point? Of course. She lied to her husband, danced and kissed another man who removed her underwear in public. Let us not inadvertently neglect to mention that they were close to having sex in an empty bathroom inside of a packed nightclub filled with guests. It is wholly implausible for David and Ellie to have the nightclub bathroom all to themselves – another jab to the lackluster screenplay.
Ellie fantasizes about David on her ride home in the backseat of a rideshare that arrived far too soon after she exited the nightclub to go home – a fatuous critique nonetheless. Her erotic imaginations of David groping and kissing her absorb her mental state on the car ride – a scene clearly imitating the Adrian Lyne-directed Unfaithful (2002) where Diane Lane fantasizes about her recent affair on the train ride back home to her husband Richard Gere. Unfaithful is another superior romantic/thriller Fatal Affair seems to base itself on. But, there’s room for Fatal Affair in the world of cinema, since both Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful and Fatal Attraction were films with Caucasian actors – Fatal Affair is the contemporary African/American version of both.
The rest of the film plays with countless scenes filled with overly informative dialogue exchanges between characters that tell us information as opposed to showing us. We learn about David in a session with an anger management therapist. “What hurts the most is that she didn’t take me seriously even after all the effort I put in.” David says about Ellie and his ex-wife. David is a character who’s clearly failed to consciously comprehend one of the major laws of seduction; it’s his job as the pursuer to constantly woo a woman even after having been in a relationship with her. Even once the woman is your fiancée or wife, she is to be constantly wooed in an attempt to gain and regain her love and approval. David’s character, portrayed by Omar Epps, is probably the best character in this film considering the flaws he possesses. But his character isn’t designed to overcome obstacles – this isn’t that movie. Omar Epps’ David is the cliched stalker/killer we’ve seen in countless slasher films of past. Steven Bishop’s performance as the calm and understanding husband, Marcus, is well-played, but overall, these actors deserved far better support from the filmmakers. Certain scenes could have benefited from better editing to exude the emotions of characters as opposed to having them talk their way through their feelings.
Romantic thrillers as such thrived in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Adrian Lyne proved to be a master, having directed several successful films regarding disloyalty and adultery, such as 9 ½ Weeks (1986) starring Mickey Rourke in addition to Indecent Proposal (1993) starring Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore. But, those pictures were dominated by Caucasian actors. Fans of Nia Long and Omar Epps will enjoy this film regardless of its featureless filmmaking; it’s a TV film, nonetheless. This movie serves as an opportunity for these celebrated African/American actors to portray leading roles in a film they otherwise wouldn’t be able to work on. What’s bothersome is how we’re shown an African/American version of a previously outdated and outnumbered Caucasian film. Cinema will have evolved once we tell diverse stories that involve characters from different races and ethnicities to the degree where its incapable of labeling a film an “African/American” or “Caucasian” story. American movies have been dominated by members of one race because of systemic racism and racial supremacy. It’s well deserved for a film like Fatal Affair to have nearly an entire African/American cast – similar to Jordan Peele’s Us (2018) – but one hopes that the future of cinema brings more diverse stories that emulate the reality of internationally inhibited subcultures in America, as opposed to the cliched “Caucasian” film. Fatal Affair is no worthier or inferior to its recent predecessors in the romantic/thriller genres, like No Good Deed (2014), The Intruder (2019) and The Boy Next Door (2015) – films that riffed on each other in wholly predictable ways through imitations and role reversals that served as mere popcorn entertainment for audiences that didn’t have the option of watching something superior, so they streamed something like Fatal Affair – which reached #1 on Netflix’s most watched list, and rightfully so – it riffed on a successful formula.
Fatal Affair is available to stream on Netflix.