Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: The 2009 thriller Obsessed was eviscerated by critics, scoring a 25 on Metacritic and a 19 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Detractors disparaged its reliance on clichés, deplorable racial and sexual politics, and blatant borrowing from Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, and every other film about a crazy-hot, hot-crazy femme fatale who simply will not take no for an answer.
Curiosity factor: Reading The A.V. Club’s D-grade review by my colleague and cubicle-mate Scott Tobias, I thought, “Wow, that sounds terrible. I can’t wait to see it!” I frequently release my inner 14-year-old from his dungeon and let him choose films for me. This was such an instance. “Boobies! Sexy women! Catfight! Catfight! Catfight!” the little miscreant argued persuasively.
I find Beyoncé to be a comely, desirable young woman. If I had to use an inane pop-culture catchphrase that’s also the title of a hit song to articulate the nature of her desirability, that phrase would be “Fergalicious.” Idris Elba does fine work, and did I mention the catfight and the sexy ladies?
The viewing experience: In Obsessed, Idris Elba plays a businessman whose job entails wearing expensive business suits, going to the company Christmas party, looking serious while staring at a computer, and saying businessy things. For example, a typical conversation between Elba and comic-relief sidekick Jerry O’Connell might go something like this:
Elba: Private equity portfolio, clients, expense account, increased revenue, ancillary revenue streams, rising and falling stock prices.
O’Connell: Tee time, the big game, check out the ass on that new temp.
In this first clip, Elba and co-workers O’Connell and Bruce McGill respond to fetching new coworker Ali Larter with leering innuendo and labored wordplay.
O’Connell leers, but Larter only has eyes for family man Elba. Will Elba leave his giant mansion, his gorgeous, younger wife/former assistant Beyoncé Knowles, and their beautiful baby to be with a bony, crazy-eyed temp? Larter initially appears to be a deranged stalker-type, but appearances can be deceiving. Not in this case, though; Larter goes from flirty to bunny-boiling bonkers in the space of five minutes.
Larter tries to ensnare Elba in her mantrap using her feminine wiles. And also her vagina. But why run out to White Castle for sliders when you have filet mignon at home? The deplorable, effective, deplorably effective Fatal Attraction worked in part because Michael Douglas seemed like the kind of weak-willed, suggestible walking erection who’d let his hormones and overactive libido destroy his life. Elba, in sharp contrast, looks like an exemplar of self-control and self-possession. He’s downright Obama-like in his preternatural poise. So there’s no doubt that he’ll reject Larter’s fevered advances. Obsessed occupies a world devoid of moral ambiguity: Good and bad never threaten to overlap. So when Larter ramps up her efforts to seduce Elba in this scene, he’s indignant, if not downright apoplectic.
Didja notice “Wild Thing” playing in the background?” Mmm, that’s good subtlety! Elba’s idea of flirting involves responding amicably to Larter’s instant messages for 20 seconds before briskly telling her to get to work (you know, on spreadsheets, portfolios, annual reports, and whatever it is she’s supposed to be working on.) But Elba’s complete disinterest doesn’t cool Larter’s ire. Before long, she’s popping up in Elba’s car in ugly lingerie, and begging for a bit of the old Salami Surprise.
In spite of the dreadful reviews, Obsessed became a huge sleeper hit, grossing almost $70 million on a modest $20 million budget. It’s easy to see why it did so well. It is shameless in its button-pushing. It callously exploits anxieties about women in the workplace and interracial relationships, but it’s just as calculated in the way it manipulates insecurities involving body image.
As I have written elsewhere, everyone hates skinny blonde women, except, of course, for the people who worship them. Obsessed callously exploits this resentment. Larter represents an impossible beauty ideal shoved down our collective throats by the media and pop culture. Obsessed offers a cathartic fantasy in which our culture’s narrow, reductive conception of the Ideal Woman is rejected, ostracized, and eventually (Spoiler!) physically beaten, before she dies an undignified death. Obsessed doesn’t even afford Larter the luxury of looking good: The leering insert shots of her ass and legs in short skirts look like they belong in an after-school special about undereating, not in a sexually charged thriller.
I kept waiting for Elba to shoot Larter down conclusively by glaring at her and hissing, “Have you seen my wife? Have you? I’ll show you some fucking photos if you haven’t. Seriously, you think you can compete with this?” Just how idyllic is Elba’s home life with Knowles? Check out this Hallmark Channel-ready clip of the family enjoying Christmas together. Apparently this sequence was ghost-directed by Thomas Kinkade.
When risqué banter, drunkenly groping Elba in a bathroom, and ugly lingerie don’t work, Larter steps up her crazy game. First she fires off a sinister e-mail of doom. Then she responds to Elba’s terse demand to be left alone with the single most sinister winking-eye emoticon in the history of trashy, racially charged Fatal Attraction knock-offs.
Running out of options, Larter pulls out the big guns: She drugs and sexually violates Elba before stealing his baby. Yes, stealing his baby. She returns the baby, of course, but c’mon, baby-stealing! I can only admire the filmmakers’ restraint in not having Larter strap the baby to the train tracks while stroking her handlebar mustache.
Ah, but everything leading up to the film’s climax is mere foreplay, a paltry appetizer before the main course that is a knock-down, drag-out, balls-to-the-wall, nearly 10-minute catfight between Knowles—fierce protector of home, family, and traditional values—and the skinny sociopath out to steal her man, and also quite possibly her baby. It’s the catfight equivalent of Roddy Piper and Keith David’s big scene in They Live, only minus the awesomeness.
I came to Obsessed in search of cheap kicks, and left with the hollow feeling of being unsuccessfully manipulated. The film exists to provoke visceral reactions in audiences, but all I felt was profound discomfort toward a shameless crowd-pleaser’s eagerness to exploit cultural divides to mercenary, soulless ends.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? About 10 percent. For dumb fun, Obsessed is plenty dumb, but not much fun. Don’t tell my inner 14-year-old (it would crush his innocent little heart), but sometimes sexy women and catfights just ain’t enough.