Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Last Trimester (Front Street/Lifetime, 2007)

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

I’ve watched a Lifetime TV-movie I recorded a few weeks ago called The Last Trimester, a quite good if rather overwrought thriller that has a somewhat misleading title — yes, it’s a movie about pregnancy, but the central characters, Tracy Morland Smythe (Chandra West) and her husband Eric Smythe (Jim Thorburn), are unable to reproduce either au naturel or with the help of in vitro fertilization. The film opens with a prologue in which they’re as happy as can be with their newly adopted baby son Alex — Tracy and her best friend are even clutching their babies and pledging that the boys will continue their mothers’ lifelong friendship — when sinister music is heard and the camera tracks to the red front door of the Smythes’ home and we just know something dire is going to happen. The something dire turns out to be a visit from Child Protective Services, or whatever it’s called in the state of Oregon (where this film nominally takes place even though it was filmed due north of there, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), announcing that unbeknownst to them the baby’s birth mother was actually married and her husband has pulled rank on them and cancelled the adoption.

A year passes, and the Smythes are now more desperate than ever for a child. One night over dinner Eric announces that a 50-something woman who works at the same company he does has a 29-year-old niece, Gabriella “Gabby” Paige (Lara Gilchrist), who’s pregnant from a one-night stand and totally uninterested in being a mother but also doesn’t want an abortion, so she’s willing to carry her baby to term and let the Smythes adopt it. Tracy’s father, Arthur Morland (Gary Hetherington) — who’s always looked down on Eric and thought his daughter could have done better — wants to put his attorney Jack Meldon (Kurt Max Runte) on the case, but Eric is too proud to take his father-in-law’s help (he’s already embarrassed enough that the Smythes live in a beautiful beach house Arthur bought them, which they couldn’t possibly have afforded on their own) and insists they can take care of the legal details on their own. As just about anybody who’s watched more than one Lifetime TV-movie in their life could have guessed by now, Gabriella turns out to be a mental basket case, telling sob stories about a roommate who ripped her off and extracting about $11,000 in sympathy money from Tracy (who doesn’t tell anybody, not even Eric). She also seems considerably friendlier towards Eric than she does towards Tracy, which leads us — and, eventually, Tracy as well — to suspect that he had an affair with Gabby and he is in fact the child’s biological father. (This suspicion is only reinforced when Tracy discovers that the “aunt” at Eric's workplace who supposedly introduced them does not exist.)

Tracy invites Gabby to live with them for the last two months of her pregnancy, only Gabby has a jealous hissy-fit and slashes every picture of the two of them the Smythes had hanging on their walls. She also hurls herself down the stairs between the two stories of the Smythe home — apparently she, or writer/director Mark Cole, had seen Leave Her to Heaven — and both she and the baby survive, but the shock sends her into premature labor and the baby, a girl named Sarah, is born and delivered to the Smythes but Gabby refuses to sign the all-important papers terminating her parental rights and finalizing the adoption. The Smythes keep the baby and start raising her, but they’re confronted with a demand from Gabby for $100,000 or she will take the child back. Meanwhile, Tracy has been involved in a minor automobile accident with a police detective, Nick Hanford (Matthew Harrison), who tells her he doesn’t mind if she doesn’t report it to her insurance company, and the two strike up a friendship when she learns that they actually could be in trouble with the law as well as risking losing their baby, since Tracy’s previous payments to Gabby could be considered baby-buying, illegal under Oregon law. Tracy becomes convinced that Eric and Gabby had an affair and Eric is the actual father of the baby — and Gabby leaves a phone message for them that just reinforces that impression, as well as making it clear that as the birth mother who never signed adoption documents, they may have physical possession of the baby but she has all the legal rights.

Then Gabby is found strangled in the bathtub of her hotel room, and at first I thought Mark Cole was ripping off the original director’s-cut ending of Fatal Attraction (Glenn Close’s character commits suicide but sets the scene to make it look like the Michael Douglas character murdered her), but when detective Nick Hanford appears on the scene, dripping with solicitude, we finally catch on (though it takes the characters another reel or so) that Nick is the father of the child. Gabby and Eric did indeed have an affair — a decade earlier when they were in college, well before Eric met Tracy — and she and Nick hatched this plot after a previous event wrenched his character off the rails. It seems that Nick and his wife were about to have their first child when complications ensued in the delivery room; not only was their child stillborn but the doctors, attempting to revive the baby, missed a hemorrhage in the mother, so Nick lost both his wife and their child at the same time. He swore off sex until he met Gabby, had an affair and expected her to respond to the news of her pregnancy with the joy he did — that he was finally getting a second chance at fatherhood after being so cruelly denied his first one. Instead she had utterly no interest in giving birth and told Nick in no uncertain terms that she wanted an abortion — and Nick, who’d uncovered Gabby’s record, including an old DUI arrest from her college days which documented her former connection with Eric (he’d been a passenger in the car when she was popped), hatched the plan to extort $100,000 from the Smythes and split it with Gabby.

What he didn’t reckon with was that Gabby would fall (back) in love with Eric and try to use the baby as a way of pulling him away from his wife and into a relationship with her — so instead Nick killed her by strangling her with the belt from a bathrobe of Eric’s Tracy had loaned her when she was staying with them, and then sneaked into the Smythes’ backyard to frame Eric for the murder. What’s more, Nick lured Tracy to his cabin in the woods and seemed to be intent on seducing her — he’d already killed Gabby and seemed to want Tracy to take her place as his girlfriend and his child’s mother once Eric was imprisoned or executed for Gabby’s murder — only Tracy unsurprisingly resisted, so he tied her up, only she used a blade on a bottle opener to saw herself loose and, in one of Lifetime’s typical over-the-top climaxes, Eric comes with the police (the honest ones, the two detectives who were actually assigned to Gabby’s murder), and when he arrives at the cabin he and Nick get into a fistfight and Eric is losing — but Nick’s gun slipped away in the melée and it’s Tracy who finally eliminates him with two well-armed shots to the body just as he’s about to stab her husband.

The Last Trimester is burdened with a silly title and a rather melodramatic plot resolution (though that is part of the fun of a Lifetime movie!) but it’s also compelling drama, and Mark Cole proves a far more adept constructionist than most Lifetime writers — so many of the principals are motivated by their attitudes towards babies and childbirth it becomes a running theme, and he makes good on the irony between the woman who can’t get pregnant and desperately wants a child, and the woman who is pregnant and desperately doesn’t want to be. It also helps that, though Chandra West is a typical Lifetime blonde bimbo — hot to look at but not much as an actress — the two men are both highly skilled actors and far better looking than the Lifetime male norm: Jim Thorburn is medium-height, wiry, dark-haired and hot instead of the tall, lanky, sandy-haired and blankly handsome type that’s Lifetime’s usual leading man, and blond, lean, cute Matthew Harrison is even hotter (well, the villain is usually more interesting than the hero, both physically and as a character). Nice drama!