Wednesday, June 27, 2012

talhotblond (Motion Picture Corporation of America (MPCA), Silver Screen Pictures, Sony Pictures Television, 2012)

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

This morning I watched a Lifetime movie I’d timer-recorded on Saturday: talhotblond — as you could probably guess from that typography, it’s a story about the Internet (the Lifetime promos for it and its page both spell the title TalhotBlond, but the all-lower case spelling is the one that appears on the actual opening credit) and, since this is Lifetime, particularly about a sex-and-murder scandal revolving around the Internet. It’s actually based on a true story, though all the character names have been changed except for the male lead, Thomas Montgomery (Garret Dillahunt, a rather homely actor it’s going to be difficult to cast but who’s just right for this part). Indeed, a documentary about it, called talhotblond: (with the colon), was made in 2009 and directed by Barbara Schroeder, who also posted her own synopsis of it to “This is the true story of a love triangle that takes place entirely online. Lies lead to murder in real life, as a teenage vixen (screen name ‘talhotblond’) lures men into her web. Revealing a shocking true crime story that shows the Internet’s power to unleash our most dangerous fantasies.”

This non-documentary version also had a woman director: Courteney Cox, the star of the TV series Friends (a show I always avoided) and someone who always put me off because of the pretentiousness of her name: “Courtney” is already bad enough and the addition of the extra “e” makes it really crazy and silly. She actually does a good job here, turning in a brilliant story of seduction and nailing both the atmospherics and the characterizations. Thomas Montgomery starts the movie as a respected, productive factory worker who is responsible to a fault to his wife Carol (Laura San Giacomo, the female lead from sex, lies and videotape now turned into a surprisingly frumpy woman) and their two teenage daughters. His only outlet is a monthly poker night with some of his buddies from the factory, including his best friend Brian Barrett (Brando Eaton), until one night when Brian says the other guys are signing up for All Betz Off, an Internet site that runs an online poker game. Thomas logs on to the family computer and during the game his attention is distracted by a woman who logs on with the screen name “talhotblond” and asks for a private online chat with him. She sends a photo of herself as an 18-year-old bikini-clad blonde named Katie Brooks (Ashley Hinshaw) and the two are drawn into an online affair. Thomas has picked the screen name “marinesniper” — which he was, during the first Gulf War in 1991 — and in order not to turn off his teen dream he sends her a 20-year-old head shot of him in uniform, calls himself “Tommy” and claims to be about to deploy to Afghanistan.

As he gets deeper into the affair, he buys a laptop of his own and spins more preposterous lies (he says he’s actually in Afghanistan and “national security” prevents him from giving her more information about his location, and sometimes because of duty he has to log off in a hurry). The relationship reaches its climax — in both senses — when Thomas, who’s previously been shown as no longer able to get it up with his wife, jacks off in front of his computer screen as Katie eggs him on and the two chat the usual stupid “sexy” things people do when they’re having cyber-sex. Meanwhile, his considerably younger, hotter and single friend Brian has also started an online affair with “talhotblond” and fallen hard for her, to the point of wanting to marry her — as does Thomas as soon as he can get out of the minor little inconvenience of his already being married. Midway through the story Carol, who’s much less naïve about these matters than the typical Lifetime heroine, opens Thomas’s laptop, guesses his password (“semperfi”) and sees the chat logs between her husband and his online girlfriend, and she writes her a letter with a photo of Thomas’s family explaining who and what he is and saying the “Tommy Montgomery” she’s been flirting with online doesn’t exist. She also banishes Thomas to the garage, and when he’s there one lonely night with his laptop (it’s a surprise she didn’t confiscate it and have its hard drive wiped) he figures, “A few hours of online poker wouldn’t hurt” — the classic cry of all movie addicts that they can handle just one more … As it turns out, he’s actually been blocked from the poker site but he can still reach “talhotblond” for a chat — and she writes him about how much she’s been hurt by his lies, and he pleads with her to resume their relationship. He also asks her if she’s indeed dating Brian, and when she says yes, he gets jealous and angry, accuses her of being a “whore” and says Brian is lying to her about himself — “what about ur lies?” she types back, with some justice — and he runs through women like Kleenex and if she gets involved with him she’ll regret it.

Then, during a lunch break at work, Thomas confronts Brian in the locker room and the two get into a fight that’s broken up by the foreman (Brett Rice), who tells Thomas that he’s going to let it slide this time but between the fight and the slacking off of his work performance, any more trouble and he’s going to have to fire him. The foreman tells Thomas to take the rest of the day (it’s Friday) off and do something to calm down over the weekend. Instead Thomas gets out his old Marine sniper rifle, ambushes Brian in the parking lot of the factory that night, and shoots him dead. Then he impulsively takes Carol and the family on a camping trip and he and Carol actually successfully have sex (nothing like killing your best friend over an online girlfriend neither of you have met to get the old juices going!). Only the police figure out the crime incredibly quickly and when the Montgomerys return from the camping trip, they’re camped outside the family home waiting to arrest Thomas whenever he shows up — and eventually the cops (one of whom has a nasal voice so reminiscent of Peter Falk’s one thinks Columbo is working the case!) get him to confess. In a big surprise twist at the end, it turns out “talhotblond” is really Beth Brooks (Molly Hagan), a frump who, like Thomas, has been lying about her age on the Internet and using photos of her daughter to lure men into thinking she’s young and hot. We see the image of Katie Brooks being asked by the cops if she knows anything about Brian Barrett or Thomas Montgomery, and saying no both times, twice, and the first time we assume she’s lying but the second time we know she’s telling the truth: Beth had just taken photos of Katie lying on a chaise longue in a bikini and used them as the images of “talhotblond” online. “You think you’re the only one who ever lied on the Internet?” one of the cops tells Thomas, who has to deal with the fact that he killed his best friend over a fantasy woman neither of them actually met and who didn’t really exist.

Mostly well-written (except for that corny “one’s too many and a hundred’s not enough” scene) by Trent Haaga, talhotblond is a quite exciting thriller that’s also well made in its depiction of the proletarian trap Thomas is in at the beginning of the movie (he and his wife both work long hours on their jobs, they never see each other, his job is dull routine and when he’s forced to make dinner for the kids because his wife is working late, his kids bitch about its high salt and fat content) and how easily he gets sucked into the online fantasy “talhotblond” is offering him — “you make me feel like a man again,” he writes her in one of her chat sessions. It’s not a brilliant movie but it is a quite well-done one, and the actors playing Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery are superbly chosen — not downright ugly but not exactly hot and gorgeous either — and they act well and make the characters’ discombobulated emotions credible. Ultimately the whole idea that two people could get so possessive over a woman they’d never met in person that one would kill the other over her in a fit of jealous rage (enough of one that Thomas got convicted of first-degree manslaughter instead of murder — presumably a plea bargain but also a reflection of the extenuating circumstances) — and that the real person would prove to be someone totally different from the one they were fantasizing about (and jacking off to her pics!) — is the most chilling aspect of this story; it makes me curious to see Barbara Schroeder’s documentary and get more of the real story, and at the same time I’m impressed with this production and particularly the sensitivity of the casting and the skill of Cox’s direction.