Too chaste to be a “Fatal Attraction” ripoff and far too dull to approach the hammy charms of “Obsessed,” the greatest assets of Peter Sullivan’s “Fatal Affair” are stars Nia Long and Omar Epps. At least they keep the feature from just looking and feeling like a limp Lifetime movie knockoff, though Sullivan himself hails from the wide world of Lifetime and Hallmark moviemaking (including no less than a dozen directorial efforts with the word “Christmas” in their titles). And yet, armed with the freedom that Netflix backing should bring — aka not needing to worry about keeping things broadcast-friendly — Sullivan and co-writer Rasheeda Garner don’t so much as bust out of the genre box as dig into it.
Opening with a double murder, the film somewhat makes good on its “fatal” promise. The “affair” part? Not so much.
Cut from the same cloth as dozens of other erotic thrillers — theatrical hits “Fatal Attraction” and “Obsessed” as well as scores of made-for-TV outings — Sullivan’s film follows a predictable pattern, with a few twists that should have elevated it to greater heights. Ellie (Long) is a high-powered attorney in the midst of a massive life change: She and husband Marcus (Stephen Bishop) have become empty nesters, complete with a move outside the city and Ellie’s decision to leave her corporate gig and set up her own shop — and her emotional and sexual needs aren’t necessarily being met.
Enter David (Epps), an old college pal who suddenly (yeah, okay) picks up a freelance gig at Ellie’s office and is all too eager to reconnect. As much fun as Epps seems to have in the role — some other intrepid filmmaker should cast him in another, meatier role that involves this much menacing standing — Long appears to be more compelled by the dramatic elements of Ellie’s conundrum. She’s a skilled-enough actress that even head-slapping moments stay grounded, such as when she confesses to David (after decades of not seeing him) that her husband feels like a stranger.
Sullivan has the genre’s cinematic language down pat, from longing looks tossed over shoulders (desire!) to couples slinking into bed and turning their backs on each other (the marriage is dying!). That’s enough to zip through the film’s first act with a measure of intrigue. After a boozy night out with David, Ellie rededicates herself to Marcus and decides not give into any adulterous desires (prudes never fear, the pair’s only “sexy” interaction is decidedly PG-13), but David isn’t the kind of guy who takes “no” for answer.
Introduced as a tech whiz, David soon announces himself as “a hacker!!,” though his skills seem to be limited to placing cameras in obvious areas and surreptitiously deleting incriminating emails (and then emptying the virtual trash to boot!). Sullivan and Gardner’s script builds in plenty of opportunities for David (or even Ellie, desperate to reclaim her life) to go truly nuts, but always stops short of real wildness or emotional depth.
There’s no shortage of twists, but convoluted plotting shouldn’t be mistaken for actual ingenuity and tension. Sullivan and Gardner frequently leave compelling angles — like the sense that David has been obsessed with Ellie for far longer than she could have ever known, or that his plan to possess her might have been put into action much earlier — on the table, only to move on to some other tiny drama. For every tantalizing surprise, “Fatal Affair” falls back into scenes as bland as Ellie and Marcus’ new beach house — a location with all the charm and specificity of a model home.
A handful of unintentionally amusing moments break up the monotony, from repeated appearances by Ellie’s daughter’s sweet suitor (but, also, why?) and at least one line reading from Estelle (cast here as Ellie’s secretary) that’s hysterical enough to warrant the multi-talented performer get her own Netflix comedy right now. Otherwise, amusement and originality is in short supply. A fatal affair? Only if you’re liable to die from boredom.
“Fatal Affair” is now streaming on Netflix.