Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Surrogate (Johnson Entertainment Group/Shadowland, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to take advantage of my last lonely morning and watch The Surrogate, the first of two new made-for-TV movies on the subject of crazy surrogate mothers Lifetime premiered last weekend. I watched the second one, The Surrogacy Trap, “live” when it aired last Sunday night and recorded The Surrogate when it was first shown the day before — and it turns out The Surrogate is so obscure there isn’t an page on it at all (there’s a listing for an in-production film called The Surrogate but the writers’ names are different) and so I had to resort to re-screening the recording and pulling the credits off it just like in the bad old pre-Internet days. As for the film itself, The Surrogate is a monumental example of Lifetime at its absolute worst: unbelievable and so intensely melodramatic The Surrogacy Trap looks like an understated drawing-room comedy by comparison. The Surrogate opens in a huge mansion with a domestic-violence scene between a middle-aged man and a young woman. They’re chasing each other through the house as they have an argument, and eventually they confront each other in the entrance hall (this house is big enough it has an entrance hall), he slaps her, she kicks him in the balls and that incapacitates him long enough that she’s able to grab the keys to her Porsche and drive away. Then there’s a stock shot of a beach and a title reading “four years later,” and it turns out that four years later novelist Jacob Kelly (Cameron Mathison, a soap-opera actor from All My Children who had also starred in a domestic drama for Lifetime called The Wife I Met Online, which they showed right after The Surrogate), who had turned out a novel called Blackberry Winter (which, judging from the dust jacket we see — a black-and-white cover with a photo of a branch from a snow-covered tree — is probably considerably more highbrow than the movie we’re watching it in) but then got blocked and ended up teaching writing at Whittemore College. The young woman from the opening scene is there too as a college staff person, sitting in on his class when he calls her in, kisses her, she slaps him but then she leaps into his arms and he ends up having her on his desk in full view of his students — and then a cut-back to her standing in the doorway of his class with a moony look on his face indicates that that scene is merely a fantasy of hers.

Her name is Kate Randall (Amy Scott) and she’s decided to break up Our Hero’s marriage to Allison (Annie Wersching), a real-estate agent who had a miscarriage and then got diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but before they removed her ovaries they harvested her eggs, fertilized them in vitro with Jacob’s sperm, then froze them — only 11 of the 12 are dead and only one can give the Kellys the child they always wanted. Like the surrogate-from-hell in The Surrogacy Trap, Kate has a demented crush on Jacob and is desperate to get him — but she’s considerably crazier, more determined and also more homicidal. She overhears Jacob tell another person on the college staff — the typical avuncular African-American who’s the voice of reason in productions like this these days (only she’s a woman and she’s younger than this character usually is — indeed Jacob actually asks her to be his wife’s surrogate herself, but having already experienced pregnancy once she backs off) — that he and his wife are seeking a surrogate, and they’ve gone to an agency called “Carriers” (which sounds pretty sick in itself — usually when I hear the word “carriers” in connection with humans bearing something inside their bodies, I think “disease”!) to hire one. They’ve already picked one out, Remy — only Kate, using a black wig (she’s naturally blonde) to disguise herself as an old friend of Remy’s named Nancy (who’s actually in San Francisco, whereas this story is set in Los Angeles), ambushes Remy at a club, drugs her drink and pushes her off the building’s roof. Then she kills Remy’s boyfriend Max when he gets too close to the truth about her — though she raises Jacob’s suspicions because he was on the phone to Max at the time Kate killed him. Kate also frames Jacob by hacking his faculty e-mail account and forging e-mails that make it look like he’s cyber-stalking her, stealing his credit card info to buy herself roses and sexy underwear to make it look like Jacob is buying these things for her as part of an affair (which, since Jacob already cheated on Allison with an old friend from college five years before, Allison is all too ready to believe) and even rents “them” a hotel room which, as Allison said in what’s probably the best bad line in a script full of them, “costs more than you spent on our whole honeymoon!” Kate even lures Jacob to the place she’s staying in and provokes an argument with him which two neighbors here, then slams a door into her own face to give herself a black eye and a cut requiring 13 stitches so she can claim Jacob beat her up and get him fired from his job.

The film’s second half turns into The Great Lie meets Misery, as it develops that the whole point of Kate’s machinations was so Jacob would be free of both work and family obligations and she could support him with the multi-million dollar inheritance she got from her late father while he just sat and wrote. Only she knows exactly the plot of the book she wants him to write: a 17-year-old girl gets passed from her rich father to a fellow businessman with whom he’s trying to arrange a merger, the other guy insists on sex with the daughter as part of the deal, when she resists he rapes her, and of course this being a movie she gets infallibly pregnant at a single contact. She wants to abort the rapist’s baby but dad insists she keep it or he’ll cut her out of his will — do I really need to tell you that this is Kate’s own story and the set-up for the domestic-violence scene we saw during the opening credits? — and unable either to keep the baby from being born or to put it up for adoption once it is born, she kills the inconvenient child and blames it on “crib death.” The authorities buy that but her dad doesn’t; he confronts her and she escapes, and though he writes her out of his will she discovers the one properly executed copy of his new will, shreds it and gets the money and the huge, remote house where the film began. Jacob is living there because he and Allison have agreed that the only way to keep Kate from making good on her threat to kill the baby inside her is for Jacob to pretend to be willing to leave Allison for Kate and to move into the mansion — where she’s carefully cut him off from any connection with the outside world, grinding his cell phone into silicon dust with her heel and cutting off the land line and the Internet (when he protests that he needs an Internet connection to research the book she wants him to write, she says her daddy left her a huge library and he can use that to research — how un-21st century!), though somehow Allison (ya remember Allison?) has managed to rent a place nearby (well, she is a realtor — or is that a Realtor? — so she may have connections for locating properties the rest of us wouldn’t) and she and Jacob pass notes to each other through the crack in an ornamental brick wall near the trash cans when Jacob takes out the trash, which seems to be the only time Kate ever lets him go out.

Alas, two weeks before the baby’s due date Kate catches on to the Kellys’ message drop (I joked that Jacob would try to lie his way out of this and say, “Would you believe I’m a Russian spy?”) and, realizing that Allison is the problem, tries to take her out with a high-powered rifle — alas for her it’s a carbine and not a semi-automatic and so she can’t get the shots out fast enough once she misses the first time, and Allison gets away and summons the local sheriff — only while all this is happening, how much do you want to bet that Allison’s water breaks (we see an un-lovely shot of the stuff dripping out from  under her dress) and she starts going into labor right then and there? Her strength holds out long enough to put Jacob in bondage in the basement, chaining him to a support beam, though he manages to use a broom to reach for a saw and use the saw to cut open the beam and escape, and eventually both he and Allison confront Kate and threaten to kill her then and there if she doesn’t start pushing so their baby can be born — which puts Allison in the weird position of doing a D.I.Y. midwife delivery of her own son. Kate tries to flee but the sheriff’s deputy catches her — only in a weird ending that seems to be setting up a Devil in the Flesh II-type sequel, the film ends with Kate and the sheriff’s deputy in a lip-lock that makes it look like she’s going to seduce him into letting her go. The Surrogate was produced, directed and written by a quite tight-knit group of people — the producers are Ken Sanders, who also wrote the original story, and Robert Ballo, who was also the cinematographer; the writers who turned Sanders’ farrago of melodramatic craziness into a shooting script are Barbara Kymlicka and Doug Campbell, and Campbell also directed — and while I’ll give Campbell and the actors credit for getting this nonsense on screen while keeping straight faces about it, The Surrogate is so crazily melodramatic and so ludicrous it sometimes seems the filmmakers were as demented as their central character. There’s an ironic little scene early on in which Jacob Kelly is telling one of his students, who’s submitted a story about a bad girl entrapping a good girl, to make the villain more interesting and let her live at the end; but I would hope that if Jacob Kelly had had Ken Sanders as a student and he’d submitted the plot of The Surrogate, Kelly would have given Sanders an F.