‘Fatal Attraction’ (2023) review: An uninspired take on the classic erotic thriller can’t see the Forrest for the trees
When Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) told Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), “I’m not going to be IGNORED, Dan,” she was right. In 1987, Adrian Lyne’s erotic thriller Fatal Attraction struck a chord with audiences and became the subject of fiery debates that continued for decades. While it may be known for that boiling bunny, silly sink sex, and Close’s pitch-perfect performance, it lacked the subtext necessary to properly tackle timely, hot topics like the casualties of Reaganomics, extramarital affairs, and gender stereotypes. Fatal Attraction isn’t just a film that feels dated, though. Even in 1987, some audiences found the portrayal of Alex to be a misogynistic indictment of working women, lacking any nuance. It only makes sense then that in today’s climate, directors and writers would be eager to take on the problematic favorites of the past and revitalize them through a modern lens for new audiences and fans of the original material. Plus, in an era where films and television shows seem devoid of sex and scandal, a modern spin on a classic erotic thriller could be a welcome addition to the current landscape. Unfortunately, the new Fatal Attraction series feels, at best, like the start of a necessary exploration into a complicated character and, at worst, a riff on Gone Girl that’s stuck in 1987.
Fatal Attraction (2023), developed by Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives, Dirty John) and Kevin J. Hynes (Dirty John) and directed by Silver Tree (Dead to Me, You, The Flight Attendant), opens with a disheveled Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson) up for parole after spending fifteen years in prison for the murder of Alex Forrest (Lizzy Caplan). Viewers familiar with the film will remember that Beth Gallagher (Anne Archer) killed Alex in a particularly grisly scene in the finale. Two women–the beautiful, stay-at-home wife and the wronged, villainous Alex—were pitted against each other in an intense showdown over a man who left quite a bit to be desired. In the series, though, we assume that Dan killed Alex and was held accountable for her death. The nuclear family in the suburbs didn’t survive the fallout in this version of the story. However, Dan reveals that he only appeared contrite and said he killed her because that was his only ticket out of prison. He will spend the rest of the series’ eight-episode arc trying to convince his family, former coworkers, and the audience that he didn’t kill Alex. Dan is established early as a liar and an imperfect character. Still, it’s tricky because it also feels like the script tries to redeem him from the first episode before the audience even knows his wrongdoings. Will we see a familiar ending, or does another killer wait in the wings?
Fatal Attraction (2023) incorporates several flashbacks within each episode to varying degrees of success and confusion. The shifts often feel abrupt, without connective threads between past and present scenes to tie them together tonally or thematically. There are too many subplots and storylines, and they needed to be more well-developed to justify eight hours of screen time. The series first jumps back fifteen years to a time when Dan seems to have everything going for him. He’s a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles rumored to be tapped soon for a new judgeship. He has a precocious daughter Ellen and a loving wife, Beth (Amanda Peet). It’s worth noting that Peet and the creators ensure that Beth is not just the archetypal housewife that she was in the world of the film. She has a career of her own and relationships with her friends and family outside of her marriage. When Dan eventually learns that he’s been passed over for the promotion, he begins a downward spiral into a midlife crisis. When he meets Alex, a victim’s advocate at his law firm, there is palpable interest, but it isn’t the sort of electric chemistry that signals the kind of life-changing affair that could cause a character to kill. Despite committed performances from Jackson and Caplan, it is challenging to believe that what starts as a one-night stand could become all-consuming for either party. When Beth and Ellen are away on a Girl Scout camping trip, Dan and Alex begin their weekend-long affair. The few sex scenes in the series lack the humor of those from the film and are, in general, less memorable. One of Dan’s most egregious sins from the film remains in the series: he neglects the Gallagher family dog Quincy for hours on end and then takes him to Alex’s apartment for day two of the affair. Yes, bringing the dog into it still feels like a particularly dirty blow to Beth.
Fans of Jackson’s work as Pacey Witter in Dawson’s Creek will be excited to learn that he is a perfect fit for this iteration of Dan Gallagher. In fact, his reputation as a teen television heartthrob disarms the audience before the affair unlocks something more violent within the character. Jackson makes Dan not only a believable everyman the audience feels compelled to root for but also someone who could feel so emasculated that he could throw everything away for sex. Understandably, the series spends time developing Dan as a character with complex motivations and skeletons in his closet. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like Alex is not given the valuable onscreen real estate she deserves, especially when the film spends its entire runtime validating Dan and burying Alex.
The simplistic writing of Alex as a character is reason enough to reimagine Fatal Attraction for a modern audience. Many of Alex’s actions in the film did not make sense for the character and felt like they were written by and for men who feared single, working women in their thirties. In the series, the writers first show Alex’s career motivations and how empathetic she is with her clients as a victim’s advocate, making her a far more complex character than previously penned. It also spends considerable time delving into her backstory, showing her difficulties growing up, her toxic relationship with her father, her misunderstandings with her law school classmates, and her troubling relationships with men. The series also takes her mental health issues more seriously yet also ramps up the theatrics, sometimes making her even less sympathetic than the film version of her character. Caplan (Masters of Sex and Fleishman Is in Trouble) gives the most compelling performance in the series as Alex, making her sympathetic and unnerving, sometimes within the same scene. While Caplan’s performance is strong, it is simply impossible to separate from Close’s interpretation of the character and full-blown commitment to making the film more substantial than it was on the page. Close is so commanding in the role, and her fearless athleticism in each scene creates a magnetic field that could believably pull any man out of the doldrums of his average existence. It’s possible that Caplan could’ve demonstrated something similar, but the script includes too many extraneous subplots to pack into each episode that her scenes sometimes feel cut off at the knees.
One of the central plotlines in the series explores Ellen Gallagher’s (Alyssa Jirrels) reckoning with her father’s release from prison. Now, Ellen is a psychology major who spends her time transcribing lectures about Jung and working through her complicated relationship, or lack thereof, with her father, in therapy. Jirrels’ performance opposite Jackson, in particular, proves that she’s undoubtedly a newcomer to watch. The inclusion of Ellen makes sense narratively, but some of the choices made for this character are pretty perplexing. In addition to seeing Ellen’s life fifteen years after that harrowing finale, fans of the film will also be excited to see that some of the visual cues from the original (e.g., the acid-soaked Volvo, the white rabbit) are included, and some are reimagined in off-the-rails, unexpected ways.
There’s a deep psychological text at the core of this story for the series to parse through for these characters, and I wish the creators pushed the envelope a bit further. In the series, Alex, Beth, and Dan are not much different from their 1980s counterparts regarding race, gender, and socioeconomic status. There are far more imaginative ways to make this story feel timely for a modern audience. With many of the storytelling choices, the series feels like a less-polished take on Gone Girl, where the persisting question is, “Is she justified?” In many ways, though, Gone Girl lit feminist conversations on fire as Fatal Attraction did in the late eighties. Perhaps, Gillian Flynn and David Fincher already reimagined Fatal Attraction in their own ways. It’s unfortunate, too, that after the thoughtful backstory and inclusion of a more nuanced approach to mental illness, Alex still loses more than any other character in the series. Yes, Dan goes to prison for fifteen years for a crime he claims he didn’t commit, but Alex is still a dead woman in this version of the story. It brought to mind the provocative yet flawed, Promising Young Woman. Why, in these brutal tales that aim to be feminist spins on familiar stories, must a woman still lose her life? It feels somewhat uninspired and a bit dated to believe that if a woman resorts to violence, is unsympathetic, and confronts men in a state of rage, she will ultimately die onscreen in the name of realism. Alex has been dead since 1987. I hoped she could have had something to live for in this new iteration.
The 8-episode first season of Fatal Attraction will premiere on Paramount+ with three episodes on April 30 then new episodes weekly.