Thursday, June 21, 2012

Murder in Greenwich (Columbia TriStar Domestic Television, Bernard Sofronski Productions, Carlton America, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran one of the items I’d recorded recently from Lifetime: Murder in Greenwich, a 2002 movie that was produced either for theatrical release or (more likely) premium pay cable because there were audible blips in the soundtrack — mostly of the “God-” from “Goddamn” and the “-hole” from “asshole.” When I saw this in the schedule and noted that Christopher Meloni was the star I was hoping this would be his first project since leaving Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — but no-o-o-o-o, it was actually filmed in 2002 (when he’d been doing SVU for only three seasons) and it once again cast him as a cop, albeit a retired and somewhat disgraced one. Murder in Greenwich was produced by Dominick Dunne — a specialist in real-life crime books and TV shows (though he’s mostly done documentaries rather than dramatizations like this) — directed by Tom McLoughlin (who did Friday the 13th: Jason Lives, Part VI in 1986, did a Friday the 13th TV series for one year thereafter and since has mostly done TV-movies, including those kinky Patricia Cornwell productions At Risk and The Front from 2010) from a script by David Erickson based on the book of the same title by Mark Fuhrman, the infamous L.A. police detective whose role in the O. J. Simpson case helped O. J. get free. I suppose if anybody playing Mark Fuhrman could get me to like the guy — whose reputation is a major part of Erickson’s script: when he’s met by one of the Greenwich, Connecticut townspeople who recites all the public criticism of Fuhrman he can think of to his face, he replies in that famous Meloni deadpan, “You forgot genocidal racist.” About the only concessions Meloni and the filmmakers make to “Fuhrmanicity” is having him wear blue jeans rather than Armani suits through most of the show (though McLoughlin gives us way too few of the mid-shots I was hoping for that would flash Meloni’s basket on screen) and giving him an ill-fitting wig instead of that famous receding hairline he’s shown on SVU and his irregular appearances in other things during his 12-year run on the series.

The story? Oh, the story! It was based on the murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley (Maggie Grace) in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1975 on the day before Hallowe’en — and the eventual attribution of it to her neighbor Michael Skakel (Jon Foster), younger brother of Tommy Skakel (Toby Moore) and several other Skakels. The Skakels were referred to as “Kennedys” in most of the publicity surrounding the trial that took place after Fuhrman’s book forced the state of Connecticut to reopen the case, mainly because Robert Kennedy’s wife Ethel was a Skakel, and I must say I avoided most of the tabloid attention at the time, mainly because the Right-wing media were seizing on the case to say that all Kennedys were psychopathic murderers, and therefore by extension all liberals were psychopathic murderers — and between that and the fact that the man who reopened the case was the racist cop from hell in the O. J. case (I have no doubt that O. J. was guilty as charged; I also have no doubt that Fuhrman deliberately tried to frame him and got caught at it — the two propositions are not mutually exclusive) I saw the whole affair as yet another Right-wing plot to make a famous progressive family and, by extension, the entire Left look bad. Erickson makes his movie move on two tracks at once, showing flashbacks to Martha Moxley alive and her relationship with the Skakels, and how the Skakels got screwed up (at one point Martha, who in Erickson’s script is literally narrating from beyond the grave — a great movie, Sunset Boulevard, used that device, and so did a lousy one, Scared to Death, and frankly this one is closer to Scared to Death than Sunset Boulevard! — compares their home to Lord of the Flies, because their mom is dead and their dad Rushton, played by Peter Rowley, is giving them virtually no supervision) while at the same time intercutting between those and scenes taking place in the (2002) present.

Mark Fuhrman is described as an interloper elbowing his way into a community already closed to outsiders before the murder happened and even more suspicious of a controversial cop coming in and messing around in the worst thing that ever happened there. If the townspeople don’t go quite as far as the famous scene in Nothing Sacred in which a small boy bites the interloping reporter on the leg, they get pretty close — and one of the most telling bits is when Fuhrman traces one of the previous suspects, who’s now working in an office, and his secretary asks for her lunch break early because she’s Black and doesn’t want to be in the presence of such a racist creep. Murder in Greenwich had the potential to be better than it is but Erickson and director McLoughlin kept going for the easiest ways out, turning Mark Fuhrman into a slightly less bald version of Elliot Stabler, a cop hated for being too good instead of screwing up and one who would ultimately win the day. The film also touches on the ability of rich people to cover up their misdeeds — though that, too, is something Law and Order routinely did better — and I’m afraid I can’t hate the Skakels as much as this script tells me I should if only because of that nasty history of the Republicans and their talk-radio propagandists using this case to argue that all Democrats are psychopathic killers and not to be trusted, while all Republicans are fair, upstanding Americans.

Next to Meloni, by far the most interesting actor in the piece is Toby Moore, a hot-looking young man (by comparison Jon Foster looks like a total nerd, which actually becomes key to the plot — Fuhrman’s solution to the case is that Michael Skakel killed Martha Moxley because he thought his older, hotter, sexier brother had seduced her and Michael was furious with her for giving herself to him) who’d actually be quite good casting in a biopic of Mick Jagger: he’s got the right combination of androgyny and butchness (and the famous gaping mouth) to play the younger Jagger on screen. Murder in Greenwich has its nice moments, mostly from its two charismatic male stars, but the writing is clunky and the relationship between Fuhrman and the cop-turned-chauffeur who worked the case originally in 1975 and ultimately helps him solve it is yet another potentially interesting dramatic theme Erickson and McLoughlin dance around instead of tackling head-on. Ultimately it’s just another TV policier without the passion, intensity and edgy writing of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.