Monday, April 25, 2011

Like Mother, Like Daughter (Lifetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was something I’d recorded off the Lifetime channel, Like Mother, Like Daughter, though it wasn’t quite what I expected from the title. What I thought we’d be getting was a Lolita-esque story of a single mom and her teenage daughter both after the same man, but what the film — written by Lifetime’s greatest auteur, Christine Conradt, from an “idea” by one Nikea Gamby-Turner, and directed in workmanlike (and sometimes better than that) fashion by Robert Malenfant — is really about is a psychotic anthropology professor, John Collins (William R. Moses), who has a penchant for seducing his students (which already makes him enough of a slimeball right there!) and then knocking them off. Mom is Dawna (Michelle Stafford, top-billed, who manages to come off as attractive and even rather sexy even though she also looks old enough to be the mother of a college-age daughter), who runs a museum (a bit of futuristic Gehry-esque architecture that is apparently really the Canadian Museum of Civilization) and first encountered Collins when she needed an expert to authenticate some Inca (or allegedly Inca) objets d’art that had been donated to her museum.

Daughter is Emily (played by Danielle Kind as a precocious prick-tease with a penchant for blue denim mini-skirts and low-cut tops that show off a pair of small but well-formed and appealing breasts), who asks mom for a favor: she needs to get into a social-studies class to fulfill a college requirement and she left it too late to register for one through normal channels. Dawna calls John, who’s as nice as he can be as he bids her enroll Emily in his class on the Incas, which will fulfill the requirement — and as soon as Emily shows up for her first day he instantly falls in lust with her and ends up actually starting an affair, meeting at clandestine places on the campus and ultimately inviting her to his home for dinner even while swearing her to absolute secrecy because of the potentially negative consequences to his career if he’s caught doing it with a student. (I couldn’t help but flash back to The Wild Party, the 1929 film that was Clara Bow’s first talkie, in which she was a college student who sets out to seduce her anthropology professor, played by Fredric March in his first film, and not only succeeds but ends up marrying him and going off on an expedition with him at the end — my, how times have changed! In 1929 we were clearly meant to read this as a happy ending!)

Alas, the night Emily visits the professor at his home she spills a wine glass on his irreplaceable handwritten notes for an upcoming presentation at a conference (for a film made in 2007 it seems wildly anachronistic that he wouldn’t have these all-important notes on his computer — it would have made more sense for her to sneak onto his computer to check her e-mail or something and accidentally erase them, costing him valuable information he hadn’t yet backed up) and thereby costs him one month’s worth of work — and he responds by killing her in a fit of anger, then driving out to a secluded spot in the woods and burying her body. Unfortunately for him, he made the mistake of burying her cell phone with her, and thereby once the 24-hour mandatory waiting period for a missing person’s report is up and Dawna can involve the police, they use the tracking feature on the phone to find her corpse almost immediately. Fortunately for John, the police have another suspect: Keith, the boyfriend Emily dumped as soon as she met John and they mutually seduced each other, who’s a bartender and aspiring rock musician but whom Emily resented because he wasn’t either very intellectual or very ambitious. John eliminates Keith by buying him a drink and spiking it with an overdose of a drug — a plausible way to kill him because he had a prison record for drug offenses — then plants the keys to Emily’s apartment on Keith’s body.

The cops assume Keith killed Emily and drop the case, but Dawna gets suspicious and finally traces John’s background via the Internet and found that once before he was implicated in the death of a student, Francesca (dead well before the film begins but seen in an hallucinatory memory sequence that is supposed to represent John’s mental flashback, and played therein by Mercedes Papalia), who disappeared on a field trip to Peru; the Peruvian police bobbled the investigation and never made a case, but Dawna (that’s how the name is spelled on the film’s page, though as I watched it I assumed the actors were pronouncing the much more common name “Donna”) becomes convinced that John murdered both Francesca and Emily — even though she’s also seeing a lot of John in hopes that he can help lead her to her daughter’s killer (sort of like Phantom Lady and all the other classic noirs in which the man the heroine leads on to find the killer is himself the killer she’s looking for).

Eventually there’s a typically melodramatic Christine Conradt climax set at John’s home, in which he catches on that she’s on to him (she’s been in his bedroom looking for the autographed soccer jerseys Francesca gave him, which will prove that he knew her and therefore he probably killed her and Emily, too) and threatens her with one of those weird ax-like kitchen utensils with which you pound meat to make it tenderer, while she grabs one of the kitchen knives and holds it behind her back to be ready to defend herself, and John’s friend David comes over with two bottles of expensive Chilean wine intending to share it with the other two and witnesses Dawna stab John and kill him — though apparently both he and the police buy her self-defense claim because there’s a tag scene, “three months later,” of her opening the new wing of her museum and a male official congratulating her for getting the project done despite “everything you went through this year.” Even for a Christine Conradt script, Like Mother, Like Daughter is melodramatic as all hell, and yet it’s good clean dirty trash, Lifetime at its most competent if not necessarily at its best.