Paramount+ puts a modern, very slow & often baffling spin on the iconic 80s thriller
Fatal Attraction is an interesting study of how a controversial movie’s takeaway message can completely change, largely because audiences have changed. It’s a stylish, well-crafted film that spawned dozens of lesser imitations, and comes off as totally different when viewed from a 21st-century perspective. The carefully delineated roles of “hero” and “villain” are something murkier: we now understand that protagonist Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) isn’t entirely clear with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) that their torrid fling is just that, a no-strings-attached encounter that means nothing to him. We see that Alex is done dirty with a script that depicts her as a one-note monster who must be defeated in the name of preserving the nuclear family. When even the YouTube commentariat largely agrees that Dan leads Alex on, you know the tide of public opinion has turned.
A remake of Fatal Attraction was threatened for years, then an anthology series a la Showtime’s softcore porn drama Red Shoe Diaries. Then in 2021, it was picked up along with Flashdance and Love Story as part of Paramount’s plan to reboot their own intellectual property for streaming. Instead of a movie, however, it’s a miniseries that’s one part erotic thriller, one part whodunit, and one part domestic drama. Using a Rashomon approach, the stated intention by the creators was to not just tell the original story through a feminist lens, but to add dimension to Alex as a character.
Now, you might be asking “How did they successfully take this tightly paced two-hour-long movie and stretch it into eight hours?” Well, the quick answer is they didn’t. Oh, they tried, god bless, by setting things in dual timelines, adding over a dozen new characters, and relying on extensive flashbacks. Despite that, they still only have about four episodes worth of story, pulled so thin you all but expect it to snap like a rubber band.
Now set in Los Angeles instead of New York City (for some reason), Fatal Attraction opens in the present, as Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson) is released from prison after a fifteen-year sentence for murder. In addition to reconnecting with his now young adult daughter, Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels), Dan hopes to seek a new trial and exonerate himself. We then flashback to fifteen years earlier, and here’s where one of the immediate problems with the show lies: other than whichever version of Ellen is on screen (Vivien Lyra Blair of Obi-Wan Kenobi plays her as a little girl), it’s often impossible to tell which time period we’re in. No one else has aged in any appreciable way, the clothing looks the same, there isn’t even any music or cultural references to provide context. It’s a baffling choice that too frequently distracts the viewer from an already convoluted storyline.
Fifteen years ago Dan is a superstar assistant district attorney, happily married to Beth (Amanda Peet), who runs her own home renovation business. His world is rocked, however, when a judgeship appointment that seemed to be a lock for him is instead given to someone else. His ego shaken, Dan is ripe to do something stupid, and indeed he does, falling into a passionate affair with Alex Forrest (Lizzy Caplan), a colleague who eyes him like a cat about to pounce on a wounded mouse. While Dan appreciates the confidence boost sex with Alex gives him (not to mention the rooftop BJ), he’s not interested in a relationship with her. Alex is very interested in that, however, and when aggressively pursuing Dan doesn’t work, she embarks on a campaign to terrorize him and his family, ratcheting things up to a point that results in her murder, and Dan being blamed for it.
Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes, the creators of Fatal Attraction, have spoken at length about their desire to both avoid a beat-by-beat remake of the movie, and give their version a “feminist” perspective. While it is ultimately far removed from the source material, there are Easter eggs dropped all over the place. We get references to bathtubs, an elevator (though no one has sex in it), a bunny rabbit (though it doesn’t end up boiled to death), and Alex insisting in no uncertain terms that she’s not going to be ignored, Dan. That being said, in keeping with the glacial pacing of everything else in the show, there’s a slow buildup to Dan and Alex’s affair, rather than their just meeting and jumping into bed with each other within hours. Considering that the sex is restricted to one (1) episode, to call this an “erotic thriller” is a bit generous.
Rather than focus on what makes these kinds of camp dramas entertaining, Fatal Attraction spends an inordinately large amount of time setting up various supporting characters, such as Dan’s no-nonsense boss, his friends (one of whom is dying of cancer, which is its own mini subplot), his colleagues (many of whom will inevitably turn on him when the shit goes down), his wealthy in-laws, and Mike Gerard (Toby Huss, the highlight of the series), his surrogate father/protector who’s always around to get Dan out of whatever pickle he gets himself into. There are also multiple therapists, college professors, Alex’s old boyfriends, even her parents and neighbors. Considering that the original movie only had three significant characters (and one of them doesn’t get to do much until the end) this is a whole lot of extra fat.
Now, you might be asking “How did they successfully take this tightly paced two-hour-long movie and stretch it into eight hours?” Well, the quick answer is they didn’t.
On the plus side, with more time comes the opportunity to put a spotlight on Beth, originally an empty, smiling shell of an understanding wife and mother. Episode 4 focuses almost entirely on her, and her dawning realization of what’s been going on behind her back. It also attempts to flesh out Alex as a character, though it’s often unclear whether she’s supposed to be perceived as a tragic figure who’s not in control of her own faculties, or a manipulative villainess who’s all too aware of the impact her behavior has on other people. Jackson and Peet are both good in their roles, but Caplan is excellent, particularly in the scenes where Alex is trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, either to protect herself or because she desperately wants that. It doesn’t take much to drop that facade though, and you can see it coming with a chilling shift in her eyes. The acting in Fatal Attraction isn’t a problem.
What is a problem is pacing and plotting. New characters are still being introduced by episode 6, and much of the penultimate episode is devoted to a long flashback of Alex’s life from childhood up until meeting Dan, and the evolution of her psychosis. There’s nothing wrong with adding this element to the story (and Caplan is especially good here), but it’s so bizarrely late in the game to humanize Alex that one wonders if the episode order was mixed up. Far too much time is taken up by various court cases and trials, and on Ellen as an adult, a character the writers seem to have no idea what to do with until the last couple of episodes (and what they end up doing with her is ridiculous). Up until then, she mostly just offers ponderous monologues about Jungian theory, all of which, of course, reflect Dan and Alex’s experiences.
Despite Cunningham and Hynes’ claim of wanting to take a more feminist approach to the story, that doesn’t really seem present in the final product. Dan, even more so than he does in the movie, comes off as a decent, well-meaning guy who just made a mistake, while Alex, despite some elaboration given to her background and mental health, is still a vindictive witch seeking to destroy his perfect life. And what is the takeaway when it’s revealed that multiple people withheld evidence that might have potentially exonerated Dan during his murder trial, solely because they wanted to teach him a lesson about blaming the victim? Doesn’t that reinforce the pernicious belief that good and innocent men are constantly railroaded for things they didn’t do by liars with an agenda? And let’s not even get into the embarrassing coda, which can be summed up with “bitches be crazy.” Where’s the “feminism” there?
Fatal Attraction isn’t bad (save for that groan-worthy ending), it’s boring, and for what purports to be an erotic thriller, that’s worse than being bad. Even when an erotic thriller is bad, it can still be entertaining (in fact, I’d even dare to say that they’re more entertaining when they’re bad). That needed wink at the audience isn’t present here, unfortunately. In trying to put a modern spin on a dated, misogynistic concept, it ends up a sluggish, self-contradictory mess that isn’t exciting, sexy, or fun.
Fatal Attraction premieres on Paramount+ April 30th.