Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Two Mr. Kissels (Lifetime, 2008)

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

The film I watched was The Two Mr. Kissels, a Lifetime “Crime of the Week” movie that premiered on the channel November 18 and out-rated NBC (with reruns) and ABC (with football). It was based on a true story about two brothers, Andrew and Robert Kissel, both born to a rich family (their dad was a real-estate investor in New Jersey), both making their careers in the stock market and both making a ton of money in their own right in the boom markets of the 1990’s and the 2000’s (and apparently weathering the Internet crash of 2000-2001 O.K.). Seen at a time when the economy has almost totally imploded, the ecstatic pronouncements of the woman stock analyst from CNN Andrew marries about how all you have to do to make money in the market (of the late 1990’s before the tech boom busted) is “wake up” seem even more out of touch with reality than they would have then — when similar sentiments fooled a lot of people who should have known better.

But the main subject of The Two Mr. Kissels is the marriage and family lives of the title characters — particularly Robert’s wife Nancy (Robin Tunney), a restaurant manager with a flair for partying and drugs that she manages to put into abeyance for a while (mostly because of the “high” she seems to get from spending her husband’s money) but which soon comes out when hubby takes a job assignment in Hong Kong, she initially moves there with them but is sent to the U.S. when the SARS epidemic hits, and back in their old home in Vermont she ends up falling for the cable guy (in real life it was a stereo repairman, but apparently “cable guy” was too juicy a cliché for writer Maria Nation to pass up). Returning to Hong Kong, she does Web searches on date-rape drugs with the intent of giving one to her husband so she can knock him off — which she does by bludgeoning him to death, then thinking that she can leave the body lying around their apartment building (in one chilling scene she has some workmen move it from their bedroom to their storage locker, and her four-year-old son holds the door open for them) and no one will notice. (She deserves as much condemnation for being dumb as for being evil.) She’s convicted — in a court that features British-accented English-speaking personnel and British procedure (though this was 2003, six years after Hong Kong reverted to China, apparently the Brits were still in charge of at least some of the criminal justice system) — and sentenced to life in a 7’ x 7’ cell in a women’s prison on the Chinese mainland with no one there, either guards or fellow prisoners, who speaks English.

Meanwhile, Andrew also gets into the investment business, only he does it crookedly and ends up losing millions for his investors — he’s appropriated most of the profits (most of the principal, in fact) and blown it all on fancy cars, prostitutes and drugs (he’s especially fond of sniffing cocaine off the hoods of his designer “wheels”) — and he’s arrested and released on bail but confined to his home under house arrest, whereupon his wife leaves him (this was beginning to look like Memron, but in this more serious context he didn’t try to chase her and set off his monitoring ankle bracelet) and the day before he’s supposed to stand trial he’s found stabbed to death in his Greenwich, Connecticut home. His chauffeur is the prime suspect and is held for the murder (according to the end credits the case is still pending and he hasn’t been tried yet), but a white-haired character who’s a composite for the various people Andrew ripped off in his investment business theorizes that Andrew really hired someone to kill him so his family could collect on his life insurance, which they wouldn’t be able to if he flat-out killed himself. (The end credits indicate that the insurance company froze payment on the claim anyway.) In fact, Nation’s script includes quite a lot of flashback narration, including some from the Kissel boys themselves, telling us about their lives and deaths from beyond the grave à la Scared to Death and Sunset Boulevard.

The Two Mr. Kissels seems to be trying to make some money-can’t-buy-happiness statements but Nation’s script is too diffuse and too much in search of a through-line to make this a moral tale, and indeed one problem with this movie is it’s one of those stories in which everyone is so repulsive there’s really no one to root for. Director Edward Bianchi gives the story to us straightforwardly and doesn’t let any directorial tricks get in the way of the soft-core porn (especially in the scenes in which Rob and Nancy are having sex and it’s all too clear that that’s her hold over him), but since one of the murders is all too obvious while the other is all too obscure, it’s impossible to get much suspense out of the story and Bianchi and Nation don’t really try. There seem to be an awful lot of potential resonances in the Kissels’ real-life story that get ignored or at best addressed half-heartedly in this movie, and to the extent that this has entertainment value it’s supplied by the acting. Former TV idol John Stamos plays Andrew (he also is listed as executive producer) and plays him as a compulsively dishonest moral basket case, while Anson Mount as Rob looks enough like him to be credible as his brother and delivers the goods in a much less juicy role. Still, this was an awfully depressing movie to be watching on Christmas Eve!