Two decades have passed since Adrian Lyne made “Unfaithful,” maybe his best film, though not his best known. (That would be his 1987 sizzler, “Fatal Attraction.”) A slickly accomplished purveyor of the erotic thriller, Lyne doesn’t make love stories so much as lust stories — specifically, the way an incorrigible sexual appetite can rip a life apart.
On paper, then, he seems the perfect choice to direct “Deep Water,” an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel about a dangerously sick suburban marriage. Vic (Ben Affleck) is retired, enjoying his tech-derived fortune by mountain biking and raising snails. (Glistening gastropod close-ups suggest this hobby has some ominous narrative purpose; let me know if you find one.) Vic’s gorgeous wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas) — rarely seen without a glass in one hand and a lover in the other — favors little black dresses that shrug off as easily as her sobriety. Vic might be tortured by her flagrant infidelities, but how can you stay mad at a woman who gets topless just to wash the dishes?
Filmed in New Orleans and soaked in boozy parties where Melinda’s public humiliations of her husband earn the pity of Vic’s friends, “Deep Water” (a French version was released in 1981) is a ridiculous murder mystery that could have worked much better as a study of sexual masochism. (The marriage has no heat, yet there’s sly relish in Melinda’s cruelty and a psychological puzzle in Vic’s pained stoicism.) Alternatively, had the story been set in the 1950s of Highsmith’s novel, when divorce was more stigmatized and alcohol the favored alternative, Vic’s forbearance — not to mention all those parties — might have made more sense.
As it is, Affleck is left with little to play but a sorry, perpetually glum cuckold. When the movie opens, a previous lover of Melinda’s has mysteriously disappeared. “I killed him,” Vic tells the dimwitted replacement (Brendan C. Miller), and we wonder if he’s capable of joking. And as Melinda’s flings — including a cheesy pianist who woos her by playing “The Lady Is a Tramp” — continue to vanish, a local writer (Tracy Letts) grows suspicious. Even Vic’s 6-year-old daughter (a delightful Grace Jenkins) looks at him askance.
None of this is ever less than preposterous. Though heaven knows I’m grateful for any grown-up movie these days, “Deep Water” is in many ways a baffling return for Lyne, whose advertiser’s eye for the allure of an image is repeatedly undercut by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson’s messy, often mystifying screenplay. Eigil Bryld’s caressing camera is fully up to any task his director sets him, but the movie appears chopped into misaligned chunks and dangling loose ends, its scenes spat out as randomly as bingo balls.
Originally intended for theatrical release, “Deep Water” has landed on Hulu, possibly because of nervousness over its themes. Yet there’s surprisingly little sex, and what there is has none of the vividness and tactility Lyne is known for. Like Vic’s snails, who must be starved before they can be consumed, “Deep Water” feels like a movie that’s had everything of interest well and truly sucked out.