Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Neighbor’s Secret (Sound Harvest/Lifetime, 2009)

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

This morning I watched a Lifetime movie I recorded last weekend: My Neighbor’s Secret, a 2009 production from a studio called Sound Venture Productions (with the repetitive style of titling Lifetime seems to want from its feeder studios they’ve also shown movies called My Mother’s Secret and My Daughter’s Secret) which I had assumed from the usual Lifetime formulae and the description of it on Lifetime’s Web site would be about a happy suburban family whose contented life was disrupted by either a single person or a family moving next door and ingratiating themselves, posing as the neighbor(s) from heaven and then gradually getting revealed as the neighbor(s) from hell.

That’s not quite how it turned out: instead it focused on young architect Brent Keller (Nicholas Brendon from the TV cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who receives acknowledgment at a dinner thrown by his employers to celebrate that thanks to Brent’s skills, their latest building came in on time and under budget. While this is going on a couple are robbed and killed in an airport parking garage as they were flying to Chicago (the setting is Philadelphia), and we later learn that the victims were Brent’s wife Gretchen (Natalie Lisinska) and her boss Sean (Nick Baillie). Within 20 minutes — even before the first commercial break — we’ve also learned that Brent’s grieving-widower act is just that, an act; he actually arranged for his wife and her boss to be killed because he believed they were having an affair, and not only does he hire someone to off them, he offs the hit man he hired by offering him a drugged drink so the official verdict is an accidental overdose.

What’s more, it turns out that he blames the death of his wife on his neighbors, doctor Jason Hest (Vincent Ventresca) and his wife, romance novelist Casey Hest (Chandra West), and he’s determined to wreck Jason’s life both personally and professionally while at the same time seducing Casey. He accomplishes the former — or comes close to — by offering to supervise the remodeling of the Hests’ home and using his access to install five spy cameras so he can observe and overhear everything they say to each other, including Casey’s increasing anger at Jason for spending so much time at work he’s neglecting her and their son Austin (Dakota Goyo — a boy named Dakota?) and the residual bitterness between them over an affair Jason had the year before, a pattern Casey fears is repeating itself because Jason’s partner at his medical practice is a hot-looking divorcée named Paula Fisher (Trie Donovan). Needless to say, Brent encourages Casey to believe her husband and Paula the hot divorced doctor are getting it on, and at one point she actually yields to him and goes as far as an embrace and a kiss before thinking better of it — at which point the easily angered Brent starts ripping up his copy of Casey’s latest novel and lamenting, to no one in particular, that she’s been stupid enough to stay with her husband instead of going with him.

Director Leslie Hope (a woman) actually has a flair for suspense — some of the most effective scenes in the movie are without dialogue — but her directorial skills are systematically undone by Michael Murray’s outrageously melodramatic script even by Lifetime standards and the thing ultimately sinks under the weight of its own preposterousness, wasting not only a talented director but a good cast: Chandra West, who’s really the central character, is appealing — just attractive enough to make Brent’s attraction towards her believable but not so drop-dead gorgeous that we wonder why she stays with that frumpy husband of hers — and both male leads are also nice-looking enough without being outrageously attractive, looking more like real people than the heavily made-up leads of feature films. My Neighbor’s Secret is a fundamentally silly story told with deadly seriousness that ultimately undoes it, and the climax is as ridiculous as the rest of it: trapped alone in the house with Jason and Brent, Casey first sends her son out to call the police (which makes sense except that the way she tells him to leave — to crawl up a vine on the side of the house, get onto the roof and then leap to the house next door — is awfully life-threatening) and then stabs her husband by mistake, then stabs the killer architect; apparently the guy dies but the final scene is her husband being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, apparently destined to live so Life Can Go On. If the writing had been at the level of the acting and direction, this one would have been much more worthwhile than it was!