Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Unstable (Starz/Lifetime, 2012)

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

I screened a movie Lifetime had on last Saturday, Unstable (not to be confused with another TV-movie called Unstable that Lifetime aired just three years ago), which though it was apparently prepared for a theatrical release by the Starz company (at least it has an MPAA rating on its otherwise woefully complete imdb.com site — the attributions of the actors to their characters are my own and they could be wrong, but most of the actors’ names were not identified with their characters on imdb.com, nor does the Starz Web site have a listing of the cast with both actor and character names) last March ended up on Lifetime in July. Though it’s not a Christine Conradt script it’s clearly the work of others who have internalized her formulae, writer Michael De La Torre and director Michael Feifer. It’s the story of Kristen (Ashley Scott), a former realtor (or should I write that “Realtor”? There’s an association of real-estate professionals which makes a big deal of that and even attempted to trademark the word “Realtor,” with the capitalization, so they could reserve the word for their members, though both Realtors and realtors sell people’s houses to other people) who gave up her job when she married successful defense attorney Jason (Jay Pickett). Now the marriage of Jason and Kristen is on the rocks; Kristen has already filed for divorce, she expects the filing to be complete in one month, and her main concern is keeping both the house (a marvelous estate in Beverly Hills — don’t you just hate movies in which the characters never have to worry about money?) and, more importantly, her son Oliver (Max Charles). The only problem is that Jason keeps coming over unexpectedly and bribing Oliver with expensive presents, including a remote-controlled helicopter toy and, ultimately, a horse (a present they promised the boy pre-breakup and naturally the kid, who practically defines the word “spoiled,” doesn’t see why he can’t have his own horse just because his parents are breaking up). Kristen goes back to work as a realtor and the branch manager of her office, Ed (George Newbern), has an unrequited crush on her.

Part of her plan for keeping her house is renting out the guest house, and Nick Rees (Ivan Sergei) shows up and takes the place, claiming to be a garage mechanic and indeed staging a meet-cute with Kristen when he comes along while she’s having car trouble and he fixes her car on the spot. Nick is described in the script as the hunk no woman can resist — Ivan Sergei is an attractive actor but he’s not that attractive, having an unpleasantly craggy face and not much in the way of a basket — and when he’s around strange things start happening to Kristen, like someone tries to break into her house and she’s being spied on by miniature cameras in her bedroom and other ordinarily private areas of the house. For about the first half of the movie we’re kept wondering whether the mystery man terrorizing and spying on Kristen is her ex-husband Jason or the too-good-to-be-true guy in the guest house, Nick — and then in a neatly done but not all that surprising reversal, it turns out they both are: Nick is really Brandon, a con man and money launderer who’s a former client of Jason’s. Jason wasn’t a good enough attorney to spare Brandon a prison sentence altogether but he did get the money laundering charge thrown out on a technicality, and as part of his reward Jason hired Brandon to pose as the mysterious “Nick,” seduce Kristen and video-record himself having sex with her so Jason could introduce the video in court and thereby prove that Kristen is an unfit mother and he should get custody of Oliver. Only Nick decides he not only likes his new role in society, he likes Kristen as well, so he kills Jason, stuffs the body in the back of Jason’s own car and later drives the car off a cliff and fakes a note so Jason’s death will look like a suicide. He also tries to run Kristen’s boss and friend Ed down with Jason’s car — he thought Ed was getting too close to the truth about him — only Ed survives and tells Kristen and Megan (Natalie Baron), her friend from the office, that it was Nick, not Jason, behind the wheel of the fatal car.

Nick/Brandon also kills Carl (Scott Anthony Leet), the garage owner who gave him a cover job and whom he’d met in prison, to steal Carl’s identity, and in the climax he lures Oliver out of the house and drives him to the desert, then demands all of Kristen’s money as a ransom and leads her out to a desert location, warning her not to call the cops or Oliver will die — only Kristen and Megan are able to overpower him and hold him until the police duly arrive and take Nick/Brandon into custody. Unstable is decently done and free from some of the defects of Lifetime movies — the one big reversal makes sense, the plot as a whole is far-fetched but at least coherent (though once again a Lifetime writer ignores the general rule that a con artist is a nonviolent sort of criminal who generally doesn’t kill anybody, and certainly doesn’t rack up the extensive body count Nick does in this film), the acting is quite good (Ashley Scott blessedly doesn’t overplay the victim card; she’s shown as tough and resourceful even under the most extreme circumstances) and the only real “cheat” is an opening “teaser” version of the final desert sequence whose action doesn’t match the actual ending. But there’s nothing really special about it, either, nothing to mark it apart from the Lifetime norm, and when Kristen and Ed come together at the end it’s what we’ve been expecting because he’s the one man in her life who doesn’t have any wretchedly bad qualities: he’s neither an overbearing, domineering husband nor a psycho crook.