The latest thriller to join the ranks of 1987's "Fatal Attraction"
and 1993's "The Crush" in the "One-Night-Stand-from-Hell" genre, "Swimfan"
offers a classy visual sheen and some stronger-than-usual performances
from a young cast to hide the fact that it is utterly derivative and
clumsily predictable. Surprisingly, the film works for the majority
of its first hour before a third act that suddenly derails into run-of-the-mill
confrontations and PG-13-level violence.
After a past that involved drug abuse and stealing, high school senior
Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has finally gotten his life back into
order. He is the most promising member of his school's swim team,
is doing well in school, and has a devoted girlfriend in Amy Miller
(Shiri Appleby). His life is once again put into a tailspin after
a one-time fling with new-girl-in-town Madison Bell (Erika Christensen).
Although Ben warns him from the start that it was a mistake and their
relationship will go no further, Madison won't take "no" for an answer.
In true movie psycho style, she sets out to deviously destroy his
life in an attempt to make him realize he loves her the way she loves him.
The premise "Swimfan" is dealt with has been done to death on film
and, to be sure, there is a certain trashy fun to be had with a movie
that wants nothing more than to be a teen version of "Fatal Attraction."
As directed by John Polson and written by Charles Bohl and Phillip
Schneider, originality was clearly not on their short list of goals
when they tackled this project. Along with director of photography
Giles Nuttgens (2001's "The Deep End"), they have instead decided
to compensate a lack of story inventiveness with style. The occasional
use of jump and flash cuts do not distract as they sometimes do, but
aid in portraying the disturbed, off-kilter mind of Madison. The cinematography
is also beautiful, with a rich use of color and atmospheric lighting
not often seen in the teen marketplace.
For a while, director Polson actually fools the viewer into believing
that there will be more coming up than at first meets the eye. He
spends a satisfying amount of time at the onset in developing the
movie's three central characters beyond cookie-cutter status. Had
this continued in Polson's trajectory, he might have succeeded in
rising above the tried-and-true formula. Regretfully, the more destructive
Madison grows, the more the film abandons its characters' realism
in favor of cheap shock moments and stalking sequences.
In the middle of all this is Madison herself, who loses more and more
credibility every time the screenplay demands that she go over the
deep end. Erika Christensen (2000's "Traffic") is superb in the role,
palpably threatening when need be, but also somewhat sympathetic in
the first half when she is scorned by Ben. The vulnerability Christensen
so smartly brings to the part is nowhere to be seen on the written
page, as she is asked to do nothing but be the one-dimensional villainess.
As Ben, Jesse Bradford (2002's "Clockstoppers") is solid in the lead
role, but he is upstaged not only by Christensen, but also by Shiri
Appleby (TV's "Roswell"), who rises far and beyond her call of duty.
Appleby brings a warmth and innocence to Amy that allows you to understand
just how big a mistake Ben actually makes when he wrongfully cheats
on her. Amy is also not just the token girlfriend, but a smart young
woman who, even after she discovers Ben's secret, cares enough about
him to let him confide in her.
That the setup for "Swimfan" is so surprisingly effective only makes
the climax all the more disappointing. Following an attempted murder
and a deadly run-in with the police, the picture culminates, just
as "Fatal Attraction" did, in water. And, also just as "Fatal Attraction"
did, it sacrifices smart plotting and plausibility for a sequence
that might have been right at home in a "Friday the 13th" movie, but
only comes off as lame here. "Swimfan" is a technically well-made
suspenser, and even features cursory entertainment value, but its
abrupt drop in IQ points as it races to the finish line proves simply
too discouraging to let slide.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman