Sunday, April 18, 2010

Patricia Cornwell’s “At Risk” (Lifetime, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Patricia Cornwell’s “At Risk” — a recent Lifetime production that like a lot of their other movies of late (the ones based on works by Nora Roberts, Joy Fielding and Ann Rule) sought to take advantage of the fame of the writer of the source novel by incorporating her name into the actual title of the film. ( ignored this; they listed this and its follow-up, Patricia Cornwell’s “The Front,” without the Cornwell tag in the title.) One interesting thing about the appearance of At Risk and The Front (to use their abbreviated titles) is that they represent the first adaptations to any screen medium of any of Cornwell’s novels — she’s stayed away from film altogether except for a screenplay for a 1999 made-for-TV movie called ATF and it’s only now that a feature-film project involving Cornwell’s most famous character, Dr. Kay Scarpetta (who began life as a coroner and forensic crime student and who has got sidetracked by Cornwell into some pretty bizarre stories of espionage and intrigue, aspects of crime fiction Cornwell really doesn’t do that well), is in the works with Angelina Jolie reportedly set to play Scarpetta.

At Risk and The Front don’t deal with Kay Scarpetta; instead their central characters are Monique “Money” Lamont (Andie MacDowell), ambitious district attorney of Boston and candidate for governor of Massachusetts on a tough-on-crime platform; and her pet police investigator (he works for the Boston Police Department but is on permanent assignment to her) and lover, Win Garano (Daniel Sunjata, an attractive and racially ambiguous actor who’d be a good choice for a biopic of Barack Obama if someone wants to make one while he’s still President, in the manner of Oliver Stone’s W.), who’s supposedly part African-American and part Native American and who has taken to heart the claim of his near-namesake Geronimo that every person’s life exists for a purpose (Cornwell quotes Geronimo’s statement as an epigram almost literally ad nauseam).

At Risk is one of those stories that would make a perfectly good thriller if it weren’t so overloaded with melodramatic plot devices and twists: in order to bolster her law-and-order credentials and convince voters that they should elect her governor so she can build a $50 million state-of-the-art facility for forensic science and analysis, Lamont assigns Garano to solve a 35-year-old murder case from Knoxville, Tennessee: the bludgeoning to death of a 70-year-old woman named Vivian Finlay (Joan Gregson — we get to see her in flashbacks). Garano takes up the case with the aid of a Knoxville detective, Sykes (Annabeth Gish), who like every other female in this movie seems to want desperately to have sex with him — as the story progresses it’s clear that cock-teasing is Garano’s main strategy for extracting information. She finds that the documents for the Finlay case are in the possession of the widow of the detective who was assigned to investigate it at the time, and who was himself shot to death just one month after Finlay’s murder. Meanwhile, Garano gets a text message on his cell phone warning him off the case and threatening his dotty grandmother Nana (Diahann Carroll), who says she doesn’t need a security system in her home because her wind chimes will protect her, and who insists that Garano wear bay leaves inside his shoes when he goes to investigate a case to ward off the bad guys and their evil bullets.

Lamont is held hostage inside her own home by a Latino drug dealer who escaped conviction when the judge threw out her case against him; later it develops that he was paid $1,000 to do this by Toby Huber (Chad Connell), a young man who worked in Lamont’s office and briefly had sex with her (Lamont is shown as an equal-opportunity sexual harasser with the power to order anyone on her official payroll into her bed, and in the twisted world of Patricia Cornwell we’re obviously supposed to admire her for this and believe it’s an indication of what a strong, powerful and independent woman she is), only to turn against her when she turned against him and had a few bitter parting words to say about his lack of prowess in the sex department. It also turns out that the real villain is Toby’s stepfather, who was the son of the woman who had befriended Vivian Finlay in Knoxville 35 years earlier — this woman had escaped a battering husband (had, in fact, killed him by waiting until he was drunk and then placing his passed-out body on a railroad track and letting the next train rid her of him) and had hooked up with country-club member Finlay, played tennis with her and charged stuff to Finlay’s account, with Finlay’s permission until she charged too much, Finlay went ballistic and she killed her — only she didn’t kill her, her son did, and Toby’s stepfather is the son who committed the murder backing Knoxville which he suggested, via his stepson, that Lamont assigned Garano to investigate to illustrate the ability of her forensic infrastructure to break cold cases.

At Risk is directed by Tom McLoughlin from a script by John Pielmeier (Cornwell is listed as one of the producers but did not take a hand in the actual adaptation of her novel), and as he’s shown before in his Lifetime work McLoughlin is actually a quite good suspense director with a flair for horror (not surprisingly given that his most famous feature-film credit was episode six in the Friday the Thirteenth franchise) but one who keeps getting hamstrung by awful scripts — including this one, which for all its pedigree in the work of a “name” blockbuster author relies on an insane series of coincidences and ramps up the melodrama to such a degree that your average Law and Order script seems like Chekhov by comparison. The insane plot of At Risk also hamstrings a good cast — even though, as hot as Sunjata is, it’s still hard to believe in him as such a 24-carat babe magnet literally every woman in the story (except the one who’s supposed to be his grandmother) wants to bed him at first sight; MacDowell acts with power and authority — as does Gish, even though the script inflicts on her character the typical fate of a Bond girl.

I’ve read a few of Cornwell’s novels and I’ve enjoyed them but there are other women mystery writers who write about female protagonists I like a lot better — including Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and J. A. Jance — and what bothers me about Cornwell’s books is exactly what got to me about this movie: the piling of complication on complication, melodrama on melodrama, reversal on reversal and hard-to-swallow plot device on hard-to-swallow plot device until I’m thinking, “C’mon, Pat — cut out all the phony gimmicks and get real!”