Sunday, November 2, 2008

Murder on Pleasant Drive (Lifetime, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Murder on Pleasant Drive was a true-crime story based on the memoir of Sherrie Gladden-Davis (written with Brad Crawford) called My Sister Is Missing; Bringing a Killer to Justice, and it deals with the mysterious John Smith — apparently that was really his name! — played by Adam Arkin in a rather mumbling and almost retarded-seeming style that made it difficult to believe he was as irresistible to women as the film depicted. Anyway, at the beginning Fran Gladden (Susan Hogan) is being romanced by this mysterious John Smith (who seems to be channeling the Chicago-era Richard Gere) while she, her daughter Deanna Whelen (Kelli Williams) and her sister Sherrie Davis (Amy Madigan) — the fact that the other two women aren’t named “Gladden” indicates that the Gladden sisters were both married at one point, but there’s no indication of any husbands or what may have happened to them — are in town to visit their mother Mickey (Mary Black) who’s hospitalized with cancer.

Fran impulsively marries John and the two relocate from Indianapolis to New Jersey, and a year later Fran disappears. John, of course, pleads ignorance, but to the sheriff’s department for Morristown, New Jersey he’s suspect number one, and eventually the surviving relatives agree with them. Meanwhile, John Smith pops up in various cities across the country and the Gladdens find out that he had a first wife in Ohio, where he was born, in the early 1970’s who also disappeared under mysterious circumstances. But the police can’t arrest or prosecute John Smith because they can’t find any of his alleged victims’ bodies or any other direct physical evidence to tie him to the crimes. Meanwhile, John — who’s described as the sort of person who can always find a job — runs through various cities, at one point picking up a street hooker and moving her into his home (where he gives her a sweater she identifies as a 1970’s fashion; he says he bought it in a thrift store but it’s really a leftover from his dead first wife) and later turning up in San Diego (in some pretty generic locations; they looked credible as San Diego but I doubt if they actually shot here), where he’s married a new wife named Dawn (Ingrid Tesch) whose grown daughter is suspicious of him from the get-go (smart girl!) and all too receptive when our intrepid amateur investigators contact her and her mom and suggest that their lives are in danger because mom’s husband is a serial killer.

One wrinkle that makes the story especially sinister is that Smith’s family close ranks behind him to an extent that seems far beyond the call of familial duty: his grandparents (Marcel Maillard and Louise Grant) give the same glaring stares behind glasses that their grandson does, and brother Michael (Bill Marchant) is intimidated into silence by grandma when the police come around, though at the end he finally agrees to talk and tells a story that when he was young he helped his brother make an odd-shaped box and later found out that John used it to dispose of the body of his first wife — and in the meantime the authorities in Indianapolis learn that a road crew in Ohio has inadvertently exhumed the box and held on to it because the presumption was the person was murdered but there was no idea who she was or how she died or who might have killed her. (Part of this was shown in a prologue with a nice-looking but rather wasted-seeming actor named Adam Battrick playing Michael; he was the hottest guy in a movie notably lacking in beefcake but he certainly didn’t look like he would grow up to look like Bill Marchant.)

Eventually John Smith is convicted of his first wife’s murder and Our Heroines take that as vindication and “closure” even though they never find out for sure what happened to Fran. Though sometimes overdirected (especially in the flashback sequences) by Michael Scott, for the most part this is a suspenseful thriller and screenwriter Walter Klenhard does quite well at keeping the story coherent despite its wide spans of both time and geography. The acting here is O.K. — Smith is such a dull character it’s hard to believe in him as a psychopath (which is probably how the real one was able to get away with it for so long!) and none of the other parts really give their players a chance to shine — though I did give the filmmakers points for letting Amy Madigan look wrinkled and actually be credible as the age of her character instead of slathering her in makeup to make her look younger. This isn’t a world-shaking movie but it’s better than the Lifetime average.