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Netflix’s ‘Fatal Affair’ is a perfect ’90s throwback thriller for your weekend streaming

In the spirit of the 1990s The Blank from Hell movies, ‘Fatal Affair’ is just the kind of nostalgic comfort food we all need right now.

Netflix’s ‘Fatal Affair’ is a perfect ’90s throwback thriller for your weekend streaming
Nia Long as Ellie (left) and Omar Epps as David (right) in Fatal Affair. [Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix]

Absolutely nothing about the movie Fatal Affair will surprise you—in the most refreshing way.

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Netflix’s foray into the simmering psychosexual thriller space is pure nostalgic escapism, a ’90s throwback that chucks viewers into a much simpler time. It’s essentially the “Macarena” scene from last year’s Richard Jewell, stretched out to a tidy 90 minutes, but sexier.

Just take a look at that title, Fatal Affair. Let it roll around in your brain for a moment. When the late, great Carl Reiner chose a name for his parody of movies in the genre Fatal Affair belongs to, back in 1993, he landed on Fatal Instinct. Nearly 30 years later, the new film’s title is practically indistinguishable from a spoof of similarly themed two-word efforts like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Unlawful Entry, and Final Analysis.

It’s also inaccurate. From a technical standpoint, Fatal Affair should’ve been called Fatal Semi-Tryst, admittedly not a better title, but one that is more honest. The plot involves married lawyer Ellie and former college friend David—played by ’90s power duo Nia Long and Omar Epps—briefly hooking up in a nightclub bathroom before Ellie comes to her senses. The two never consummate their brief fit of passion, but it’s enough to drive David to homicidal heights. He simply must have Ellie all to himself, and he’ll go to deliciously familiar extremes to get her.

Everything that happens before and after this inciting incident is overly obvious but no less wonderful. The exposition plops out smoothly, like soft-serve ice cream on a midsummer day. When we first meet Ellie, the camera pushes in on her wedding ring while she gabs on the phone about lawyer stuff, so we know she’s a lawyer who is married. We see the huge sign that reads ‘San Francisco’ on the San Francisco Bay Ferry, right after a soaring shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, so we know where we are. We learn that Ellie’s friend, Courtney (Maya Stojan), is both single and horny, which will come in handy later, because she is introduced by entreating Ellie, “I am dying to get my flirt on and I need my wing woman.” Finally, we understand that David has anger issues when his therapist asks him, “David, do you remember when you first came to see me after your court-ordered anger management?”

This is the kind of movie you could “watch” without ever once looking up from your phone. Thank God.

Omar Epps as David (left) and Nia Long as Ellie (right) in Fatal Affair. [Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix]
While the message of Fatal Attraction, the don dada of erotic thrillers, is “don’t have an affair,” since Ellie and David never truly have an affair, the message here is more like “be careful who you let into your life.” This distinction tips Fatal Affair firmly into the subgenre of The Blank from Hell movies. (A subgenre whose title was apparently coined by Richard Lewis.) The Blank from Hell movies were equally popular in the 1990s, and included such classics as Single White Female (the roommate from hell), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (the nanny from hell), The Good Son (the son from hell), Pacific Heights (the tenant from hell), The Crush (the underage Alicia Silverstone from hell), and The Temp (this one’s self-explanatory). In the case of Fatal Affair, the person Ellie lets in her life, David, is a tech consultant who specializes in retrieving unwanted emails. (Insert painful Hillary Clinton’s server jokes here.)

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The movie makes a convincing, timely case that these people are not to be trifled with.

What’s not timely, however, is Fatal Affair’s portrayal of mental illness. All we know about what’s up with David is that he has anger management issues. As it turns out, though, David is much more disturbed than that diagnosis. Aside from his outbursts of anger, which should really be enough to tell us this guy is bad news, at one point he slips into psychosis in the middle of a café; confusing Ellie with his ex-wife, Deborah (Kj Smith), and then freezing up for far too long.

Stigmatizing mental illness is bad enough yet again, but conflating a bad temper with more serious issues is even worse. It would be offensive if it weren’t ham-fisted enough to be accidentally funny.

Overall, though, Fatal Affair is a breezy stream for a pandemic-ascendant weekend, the path of least plot resistance.

No alarms and no surprises, and doesn’t that sound nice right now?

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