Back in my office working days, my old boss was perusing the newspaper, hunting for a movie he’d like to see. He asked his wife if she was interested in seeing “the fish movie.” After about thirty minutes, an enigma machine we’d seized from the Germans, a visit from Jessica Chastain’s 30 Dark Thirty character, and someone willing to read tea leaves, goat entrails, and all our horoscopes, we realized he meant Swimfan. In case you’re wondering, there’s nary a fish in this one. Then again, my boss was insane, which is a big reason I don’t work for him anymore.
Tagline: Wanna pretend that never happened?
More Accurate Tagline: Whenever a movie’s tagline issues a third degree burn like that one, I’d be a fool to try to top it.
Guilty Party: Back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the market was a lot like the guidelines for Albanian human traffickers: all teens, all the time. Studios made teen movies, they adapted Shakespeare into teen movies, and in this tail end of the trend, they remade other movies into teen movies. I’m blaming whichever executive watched Fatal Attraction and decided it needed to be remade for the Dawson’s Creek set.
Synopsis: Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has the perfect life. He’s the big man on campus despite being a shade over five feet tall, he’s an inhumanly great swimmer, and he even has the perfect girlfriend Amy (Shiri Appleby). Turns out, though, he wasn’t always the overachieving merman we see before us. No, in the nebulous past, he had drug problems and a stealing habit that led to a stint in juvie. That’s where, in his gritty origin story, he started to swim competitively. There’s a lot of swimming in juvie. Just one of those things.
Everything goes pear-shaped when new girl Madison (Erika Christensen) shows up and decides that she needs to get Ben up in her pronto. It’s like she has a vagina-powered proximity sensor or something. They meet when he helps her by picking her locker door open, and she decides that any dirtbag with a speedo and housebreaking skills is marriage material.
Later on, he gives her a ride home, and she “accidentally” leaves her journal behind. He takes it back to her, and it becomes an impromptu date. He tries to pawn her off on his pal Josh — the Ryan Lochte to his Michael Phelps — but she’s not into it. At the end of the date, she seduces him in the school’s swimming pool, which is going to result in an unpleasant surprise for whoever has to swim in that lane the next day.
She quickly turns out to be a total stalker. Which he should maybe have put together earlier, but in fairness, I don’t know how smart Ben is supposed to be. Still, when he gets a thousand email messages all from “SwimFan85,” he connects the dots pretty quick. He does his best to keep her at arm’s length, but she won’t let up, and eventually, he’s got to break up with her. Anyone who’s seen the source material knows what happens next. Madison goes crazy. Or maybe she doesn’t go crazy so much as return to crazy after a short vacay.
Madison devotes her life into ruining Ben’s. Which is really inspiring. It just goes to show that you can do anything you set your mind to. She starts dating Josh, because fuck it, merman genes, then kills him after he catches her calling him “Ben” while making out. She gets Ben fired from his hospital job by switching medications on patients, gets him kicked off the swim team by planting steroids on him, tells Amy about the affair, frames him for Josh’s murder, then frames him for running Amy down on the road. The cops are probably wondering why Ben decided to play all these unlocked Saint’s Row missions in real life.
Ben goes all Hardy Boys on her. He breaks into her house, which leads to a shaky alliance with her cousin, who might or might not be mentally disabled. He could also just be a nerd. I’m pretty sure this movie thinks that anyone who cracks a book is a potential serial killer. Anyway, the cousin first helps Ben track down Madison’s ex, who is in a coma, then catches her with a pretty effective sting.
Madison escapes police custody so quickly, I don’t know why they bothered in the first place. Seriously, they don’t even get her to the station. Sheds some light on why they had trouble with Ben. So she kidnaps Amy and the three of them have a showdown at the pool. Ben rescues Amy and drowns Madison, who despite being a Swimfan, can’t swim. Oh, cruel irony!
The movie ends with Ben’s life in better shape. He’s still off the swim team, he has no job, but he’s with Amy. I sound like Luis talking about how he got the van in Ant-Man, so I’ll stop.
Life-Changing Subtext: Never tell a woman you love her.
Defining Quote: Madison: “Tell her you love me, I know it!” Madison really likes being told she’s loved. She gets Ben to tell her that when they’re having sex, and gives him the escape valve, “you don’t have to mean it.” He says it, and man. It’s like a magic spell summoning the crazy. Dr. Jekyll goes to sleep, and here’s Mr. Hyde. I wonder if he was into swimming.
Standout Performance: Nick Sandow, most famous these days as Caputo from Orange is the New Black, is in one scene as a detective who amiably shakes Ben down. It’s the most understated, natural acting in the whole thing.
What’s Wrong: Swimfan was dated roughly 13 nanoseconds after it first showed on a movie screen. This is the most 2002 movie that has ever existed. In the future, if aliens want to know what it was like in 2002, all they’ll have to do is find a warehouse of unsold copies of this DVD and they’ll learn all about pagers, payphones, farting nu-metal, the auto-safety device The Club… and actually, I think this thing was already dated in the script stages. This film doubles as the death throes of the late ‘90s, only funnier.
Flash of Competence: I’ve always liked Shiri Appleby, and I make no apologies.
Best Scenes: On their initial date, Madison and Ben go to the pool for some reason while Madison watches him do laps. Then she gets into the pool in a bra and panties, and Ben knows this is a bad idea. The look on Bradford’s face through this scene is pretty priceless. He looks like a man staring down a tiger. “I know if I wrestle this thing, I get free pudding for the rest of my life… but that life might not be very long.” He ends up wrestling the tiger, but no pudding. It’s a lose-lose.
Amy has this maddening habit of being super vague. It’s like she knows what kind of movie she’s in and exists only to ratchet up the tension. You know, like we don’t want her to find out Ben’s a creep and she could do so much better. So she has lines that are like, “You’re so busted…” (cue Ben’s panicked face) “You forgot to study with me!” Or then there’s “You’re freaked out.” (ohshitohshitohshit) “The other night I was pushing you!” Goddammit, Amy! I’m pretty sure she’s killed multiple boyfriends via heart attacks this way. It’s how Amy weeds out the weak.
Transcendent Moment: I’ve been hinting around that Ben isn’t the sharpest shank in the prison informant. Seems like me being needlessly cruel. Here’s the thing, though. At one point, he hops into the pool, which is blazing with this blue-white light, like the aliens from The Abyss are about to surface under there and bring peace and tsunamis. He swims along until he runs right into Josh’s body. He doesn’t see it until his head literally makes a coconut sound as it collides with Josh’s skull. How did he miss that? I’d love to see Ben as the protagonist of a slasher movie, so in the last act, when all the corpses have been lovingly posed by the bad guy, Ben just wanders along by, totally oblivious until the slasher gets frustrated.
Swimfan is silly and terrible, but it’s short. But just to be clear, and if my old boss is reading this: it has nothing to do with fish. People who swim. No fish. Still, it’ll always be the Fish Movie to me.