Monday, June 29, 2009

A Teacher’s Crime (Capital Productions/Lifetime, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran one of the Lifetime TV-movies I’d recorded over the weekend: A Teacher’s Crime, directed by Robert Malenfant (whose name almost seems to invite a bad pun!) from a script by Christine Conradt and Corbin Mezner. The title, the promotion and especially the tag line (“Her first mistake ... was getting close to him”) were calculated to make it seem like this was going to be yet another one of those Mary Kay LeTourneau-inspired stories about a 30-something sexually frustrated schoolteacher who gets it on with a horny barely-pubescent boy in one of her classes and ends up imprisoned and disgraced — which would have been a much nicer slice of good clean dirty fun than the film we actually got.

The lead character is a 30-something (or maybe 20-something, since the actress who plays her, Ashley Jones, is 33 in real life and quite sexy — perhaps a bit too sexy for the role she’s playing here) teacher named Carrie McMillian Ryans, who’s reaching out to an intelligent but troubled teen in her class named Jeremy Rander (Erik Knudsen, whose hair is a bit wavy but who otherwise looks like he’s going to grow up to be the kind of tall, lanky, sandy-haired, anonymously handsome but not particularly sexy “type” Lifetime likes in its leading men). Rander is a whiz at history and is particularly interested in the military, since his dad was a career soldier who was killed fighting in Bosnia (you remember, Clinton’s stupid “liberal” war as opposed to Bush’s stupid “conservative” war in Iraq and Obama’s stupid “progressive” war in Afghanistan) and his mom committed suicide the day after she got the news.

The deaths of his parents left him stuck with his uncle Bill (Chris Mulkey), who essentially pulled an all-male version of the plot of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters on him: he enlisted Jeremy’s help in a series of cons that kept them going financially. Now they’re settled in Philadelphia, where Bill is running a used-car lot that deals in stolen cars, provided him by Evan (Tom Rack) on behalf of a mysterious organized-crime boss named Collins (whom we never see, and though we hear his voice on the phone the entry on this film doesn’t list who the voice actor was). Bill wants to make a major score so he can have the seed capital to cut Collins out of the loop and buy cars directly from Miguel (also unlisted in the cast list), the crook who actually steals them. He’s fastened on Carrie because her father, David McMillian (Art Hindle), just made millions selling his auto-parts company (this film was made in 2008 and already that plot point seems horrendously dated!) and he hatches a plot to get his hands on the McMillian millions by telling Jeremy to go after Carrie and make it appear as if they’re having an affair — and make it look good enough that Bill can secretly take photos and blackmail Carrie with them.

Just to ensure the success of his plot, Bill follows David to his summer house where he’s gone to fish and pushes him down a long flight of stairs, killing him in a way that looks like an accident, so instead of David trying to talk Carrie out of paying the blackmail demand she’ll be on her own and thereby will pay off rather than risk losing not only her career but also custody of her daughter Lacey (Veronique-Natale Szalankiewicz) — whose father Dean (James Gallanders), from whom Carrie is separated but not divorced, is in cahoots with Bill to get sole custody, since Bill had even arranged for the breakup of Dean’s and Carrie’s marriage by instructing his girlfriend, bartender Shannon (Sonya Salomaa), to seduce Dean away from Carrie and get him to move in with her, an arrangement that pisses off Lacey because she can’t stand the drinking, smoking and arguing Shannon and her sleazy friends do whenever she’s required to spend the weekend with her dad.

As you can tell from the above synopsis, the main problem with A Teacher’s Crime is the sheer amount of melodrama and credibility-bending happenstance Conradt and Mezner have loaded into their script — what were they doing, auditioning for Law and Order? — which the hapless actors do the best they can with. Ashley Jones seems to be miscast as a teacher — she’s so sexy one wonders why all the (straight) boys in her class don’t have crushes on her — and the actor playing her husband looks more like Jeremy’s big brother than anything (ironically making it believable that she and Jeremy could have been having an affair), but Chris Mulkey delivers a nice portrait of low-level evil and, despite the over-the-topness of much of their script, at least Conradt and Mezner resisted the temptation to put their central character in a life-or-death crisis at the end.

Instead, the police get Jeremy to weasel a confession out of his uncle on a wiretapped phone, then go to arrest him … and it turns out Evan, his organized-crime connection, has already been there and killed him at Collins’ order because he was trying to double-cross the Mob and go into the stolen-car business himself … A Teacher’s Crime’s deceptive title still rankles somewhat, but it’s a pretty good thriller even though nowhere near the level of Cries in the Dark, whose title was deceptive only in that the film itself turned out to be better than you’d have thought from what it was called!