Film drowns in a deep pool of bad acting

`Swimfan' a stale take on teen-stalker genre

Movie Review

September 06, 2002|By Manohla Dargis | Manohla Dargis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SUN SCORE

*

When Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction was released in 1987, the nastily enjoyable cautionary tale caused a minor scandal because it looked as fresh as the post-feminist moment. Its shocks and hamfisted morality had been lifted from scads of earlier films. But no matter, audiences everywhere pointed thumbs down at the blonde who would be Michael Douglas' queen.

If the psycho-stalker story looks less fresh now, it's in part because real life has a way of making cheap stories look cheaper: There are simply too many sad newspaper stories out in the world to make a stalker thriller the first choice in evening entertainment. Then there's the fact that after all this time it may be OK to admit that Glenn Close's character - the wild woman who crawled into the married man's bed only to end up dead in his bathtub - was really the film's tragic heroine. Surely I'm not the only one who was sorry to see this tough maniac die, especially on account of such a pusillanimous louse.

Louse sums up the guy in Swimfan, as well, and pretty much everyone else connected with this moldering hash. Varsity high-school swimmer Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) meets and intimately greets the new girl at school, Madison Bell (Erika Christensen), whose Anna Magnani street-mamma wardrobe of cigarette skirts and perilous heels are instant signals that she and the filmmakers are up to no good. Faced with such sartorial distractions, and a nearly naked girl grinding her body into his, Ben has no choice but to make the wrong choice. One evening, trapped in the deep end of the pool, he pledges loyalty to his girlfriend, Amy (Shiri Appleby), even as he takes the (apparently unprotected) plunge with Madison.

Before you know it - and you know this plot kink and every other development long before they happen - Madison is hunting Ben down, accompanied by her very own psycho-chick refrain, though here the shrieking notes sound lifted from an old Carol Burnett sketch instead of the Bernard Herrmann catalog.

Given the lapses in continuity (entire scenes seem to be missing) and especially Madison's eye-popping meltdown (which itself summons up warm memories of classic Burnett), it's too bad that director John Polson didn't have either the will or the foresight to push the film into full-blown camp.

The problem is that it's hard to camp up a movie already so deeply in touch with its exploitative roots: Madison isn't just an average psycho-stalker, she's one of those vixens whose decolletage is a barometer of her mental health, which means the nastier she grows, the more she shows.

The actors never have a chance. Bradford, an appealing former child actor who's done fine work in films such as King of the Hill and Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog, spends most of the movie with his mouth hanging open, which is never a wise strategy for a performer making the transition to older roles. On the other hand, it's hard to know what to say about Christensen, who spent most of Traffic playing a zonked-out drug addict and here seems to be auditioning for the Bette Davis role in the prequel to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Special mention, however, does go to the invaluable character actor Dan Hedaya, for playing his role (as Ben's coach) with the same gravitas he brings to all his performances, and to a young actor named James Debello, who as Madison's cousin seems to be the only one here who's in on the joke.

Overly long at even 84 minutes, Swimfan sputters to its inevitable conclusion, preordained by a welter of genre precursors and a long-standing attitude to teen-age sexuality.

However fundamentally punitive its moralism, Fatal Attraction was at its core riddled with contradictions about men, women and sex. Swimfan, on the other hand, isn't any different from those slasher films that undress girls and boys to get a bead on their vulnerable flesh - except that it's sometimes pretty funny.

Although its disjointed quality makes it hard to know if the film went wrong before, during or after production, there's one thing about Swimfan that's crystal clear: Neither Polson nor screenwriters Charles Bohl and Philip Schneider, or anyone else connected with the movie, seems to like kids.

Here's hoping the kids feel the same.

Manohla Dargis writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Swimfan

Starring Erika Christensen, Jesse Bradford

Directed by John Polson

Rated PG-13 (mature thematic elements, sexual content, disturbing images and language)

Released by 20th Century Fox

Time 84 minutes

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