The moral of Swimfan is simple (and one that's been handed down from film upon film before it): Don't mess around with a girl teetering on the edge of insanity 'cause nothing good is going to come of it. Still we all know the drill. 18-year-old Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has it all--a loving girlfriend Amy (Shiri Appleby) a promising shot at a swim scholarship with Stanford University and a good job at his mom's (Kate Burton) hospital. That is until he meets Madison Bell (Erika Christensen) the sexy new girl in school who decides she'd like to get to know the handsome Ben a little better. One thing leads to another and--bada-bing! bada-bam!--there they are makin' waves in the pool. Ben doesn't feel great about cheating on Amy and hopes his dalliance and his guilt will just go away. But Madison will not be ignored. After he spurns her she proceeds to systematically ruin his life until ultimately murder becomes the primary objective. Save some glaring implausibilities (how can one teenage girl have so many resources at her fingertips?) Swimfan manages to get its point across.
Obviously what will draw people to this movie is the talent and Swimfan gathers a able collection of good-looking youngsters to carry the movie. Bradford (Bring It On) has a baby face that belies a growing maturity to his acting. He's a natural. Bradford and Appleby (TV's Roswell) are also refreshingly believable as a young couple in love without too much sugar coating. They have an honest moment together sitting at a restaurant while he is trying to get her to forgive him--it's a nice chemistry and you end up rooting for them. Christensen however is the one we all really want to see. Since her fantastic performance as the teenage junkie in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic two years ago she's been touted as one of Hollywood's young performers to watch. At first she infuses Madison with a fair amount of intelligence and wit; she actually seems pretty sane. While the young actress is obviously talented this particular approach works to her disadvantage later when she goes off the deep end. It seems almost forced. Christensen is much better at the cool manipulative and charismatic persona rather than the "look-out-I-have-a-knife" one. She is still one to watch though once she gets her hands on some great material.
OK so there isn't anything new about this concept. Some may cite Clint Eastwood's 1971 Play Misty for Me as the first classic chick-stalker movie and since then there have been some great ones (Fatal Attraction) and some not so great (The Crush). Swimfan falls somewhere in between. For the sake of moving the story along it asks you to suspend your disbelief quite a bit. How could Madison get her hands on hospital drugs or be strong enough to do some of the things she does? Still the direction surprises you at times. Actor-turned-director John Polson isn't going to win any awards but knows how to use the camera effectively. The film captures its actors and the surroundings in a lush way. One particular editing technique he uses is the quick cuts when emphasizing an actor's emotional reaction. When Madison is rejected he cuts between her slightly varying wounded glares. It works. Unfortunately the film still falls into the same tired clichés set by much better predecessors.
Randy (Matt Dillon) is a bartender at a neighborhood dive called McCool's. One night he rescues Jewel (Liv Tyler) from her abusive boyfriend Utah (Andrew 'Dice' Silverstein) unaware that the sultry redhead and her paramour are in cahoots with a plan to rob the joint. Mayhem ensues when Jewel feasts her eyes on Randy and rubs out Utah instead. Randy falls madly in lust with her as does Detective Dehling (John Goodman) called to investigate the murder and Carl (Paul Reiser) a drunken lawyer and Randy's cousin. The story is told from the diverging perspectives of the three men as they pour their hearts out to different confidants in their lives: a hit man a priest and a psychiatrist. Each of the Romeos sees Jewel in a different light. While Carl thinks she's a tramp with powers of seduction Detective Dehling envisions her as a lost soul in need of guidance. Their stories eventually converge to a mutual ending.
The film's cast gives it bragging rights. Liv Tyler really pulls off the role of Jewel a seductive sex kitten who wants nothing more than a nice home with a gold fountain in the dining room. And while Jewel is a manipulative double-dealer without a shred of decency she still elicits compassion with her tacky rag-tag dreams. Matt Dillon is in his element as the doe-eyed bartender with an endearing affection for snow globes. Soft spoken and dimwitted he gives his character multiple dimensions. Another multi-faceted character is the pockmarked bingo-playing hit man with an empathetic streak played by Michael Douglas. Delivering an equally poignant performance as Detective Dehling is John Goodman a cop still grieving over the death of his wife. But a disappointing Reiser brings nothing to a role of Carl a horny lawyer with a leather fetish who is cheesy beyond belief.
Though shooting a multi-perspective film is not a new idea in Hollywood first-time director Herald Zwart does it with humor and originality and without pretension. The three characters' points of views vary visually from one another in terms of lighting lenses and costumes. If Jewel for example is wearing a red dress in Randy's version of events the same red dress is a few inches shorter when told from Carl's perspective who sees her as a sort of vixen to pink and almost matronly when told through Dehling. The camera focus also softens when Jewel is seen through Dehling's eyes though the effect might have been more effective had it been done more subtly. The film starts off strong but lags a bit halfway through only to regain its momentum toward the end. But it is well done over all and does not pretend to be something that it is not.