Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fatal Desire (LIfetime, 2006)

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

This morning I watched one of the Lifetime movies I’ve been recording lately, Fatal Desire, distinguished (if you can call it that) by two semi-major stars in the leads, Anne Heche and Eric Roberts (whom Charles recognized even though he’d only seen him “young” before). The promo on Lifetime’s Web site promised a considerably hotter and steamier movie than this — though supposedly it’s based on a true story — and what comes across on screen is a pretty ordinary tale of adultery and psychopathology whose only real au courant twist (this was made in 2006, though imdb.com lists other movies called Fatal Desire — both either TV-movies or direct-to-video releases — from 2003 and 2004) is that the adulterous couple first meet on the Internet.

She’s Tanya Sullivan (Anne Heche), a frustrated housewife in Pittsburgh whose husband works at a junkyard and who has a job of her own as a cosmetics sales representative. He’s Joe (Eric Roberts), an ex-cop (he was a sheriff’s deputy fired for blowing the whistle on a case his boss wanted covered up) and a pit boss at a casino in Atlantic City who first hooks up with Tanya on a sexually explicit chat room and then starts an e-mail exchange with her and then gets sufficiently inflamed by her charms as she’s described them and illustrated them with her photo that he insists on what most Internet cruising buffs describe as an “F2F” — i.e., a face-to-face meeting. When they meet, he’s briefly disappointed that she’s married and she’s briefly disappointed that he’s not a casino owner, as he falsely claimed (though given how we’ve seen movies about psychopathological casino owners on Lifetime it’s probably just as well he isn’t!), but the screw like bunny rabbits anyway. In a scene that’s so silly it achieves camp, they have sex in a parked car and go at each other so intensely, and scream so loudly, it sets off the car alarm not only of their own car but of every other car in the parking lot!

The second time they meet Tanya brings a home pregnancy test and tells Joe she’s pregnant with their child — they’re both raising children of their own, she a daughter, Molly (Jessica Parsons), by her husband Mark (Mark A. Owen) and he a son, Teddy (James Edward Campbell, with an early Beatles haircut and so perfect a moon face that if they do a movie about the Beatles’ childhoods before he grows up, he’d be a good choice to play the boy John Lennon), by an ex-wife whom we never see; and Joe takes this piece of information and spins a fantasy of her divorcing her husband and the five of them forming a family. On subsequent visits Tanya tells Joe that she was molested as a child and that her husband is a member of the Mafia and beats her — she even claims to have been beaten by him (she sends him pictures of her bruises) and gang-raped by some of her husband’s hired thugs and nearly drowned in their swimming pool. By now we’re getting the idea that she’s spinning a lot of tall tales to get him to do something drastic, but he’s totally clueless — apparently he’d never seen Double Indemnity in his life — and so when she challenges him to kill her husband for her, he agrees, follows her instructions on how to get to his workplace, and does the deed with a shotgun.

Then she totally cuts off contact with him, and in the film’s most genuinely chilling scene responds to his repeated phone calls and e-mails by pressing the “delete” button on her computer and deleting his entire file. (It’s a comment not only on the psychopathology of her character but on the cruel ease with which one can drop one’s online “friends” — I’ll never forget one social-networking Web site that offered a button with which one could “Change Your Community!”) Knowing that items “deleted” from a computer actually remain on its hard drive until they are written over with new information (and even afterwards some particularly skilled IT people with special software can retrieve them), I thought her final comeuppance would come as a result of evidence she thought she had erased forever but she really hadn’t. Instead it comes from conscience-stricken Joe, who tells his confidant Paula (Kathleen York) — a dealer at the casino who had been in unrequited love with him — that he’s got something on his conscience and hints that he’s going to commit suicide. She tries to stop him by taking away his guns (suggesting a plot twist that she’s going to dispose of the murder weapon accidentally and thereby make it that much harder for the police to solve the crime), but in the end — instead of doing the obviously sensible thing, which is to turn himself in and ask for leniency in exchange for implicating her (having worked on the other side of law enforcement, an ex-cop would have known how that particular game in the system plays out!) — he actually does kill himself, but leaves behind a briefcase full of evidence that allows the Pittsburgh police to nail her.

Fatal Desire is sloppily written (the only writing credits are for Paul Janczewski and Mark Morris for writing the book on which it was based, Fatal Error — which would actually have been a better title, but less blatantly sexy and therefore presumably less appealing to the Lifetime audience) and way overdirected by Ralph Hemecker — instead of giving us the hot soft-core porn scenes Lifetime is known for, he indulges in camera tricks like shooting one of Joe’s drinking binges from above the bar, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the bartender serving him a shot and him drinking it — and it had the problem of being unable to make Anne Heche’s character that much crazier than she is for real, what with her tales of being abducted by space aliens and the fact that she’s most famous for her brief relationship with Ellen DeGeneres even though both before and after that she was otherwise totally straight. Eric Roberts is decently well preserved — even in his current state he’s a good deal more attractive than the common run of Lifetime’s leading men — though the TV delivery person whom Tanya takes up with at the end (and who’s in her house when she’s arrested) is played by Matthew MacCaull, easily the hottest guy in the movie.

It’s one of those interesting stories that could have made a much better movie than it did — and the similarities to Double Indemnity (which was also inspired by a true story — James M. Cain based his 1935 novel on Ruth Snyder’s 1927 murder of her husband Al, which she committed in partnership with her lover, Judd Grey — though in the real story, she tricked her husband into secretly signing an insurance policy on his life but the insurance agent was not her lover and co-conspirator) only underscore not only what a better movie Billy Wilder’s classic is but also how much better an actress Barbara Stanwyck was than Anne Heche and that the situation makes for more powerful drama if the man knows from the start what he’s being asked to do and that it’s wrong, but goes ahead and does it anyway.