Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Preacher's Mistress (Triple Cross Productions/Lifetime, 2013)

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

The film was The Preacher’s Mistress, aired last Saturday on Lifetime in what was ballyhooed as a “world premiere,” which was directed by Michelle Mower from a script co-written by her and Kevin Dean (none of these people are Christine Conradt, but it’s clear they’ve internalized her formulae) and which instead of traveling in the well-worn groove of so many Lifetime movies before it (especially ones with titles like “The _____’s _____”) actually threw us a few intriguing curveballs. The film begins with our central character, Gwen Griffith (Sarah Lancaster), drowning in debt and being threatened with foreclosure on the house she, a single mom, shares with her son Alec (Logan Lindholm, a child actor who seems about four years too old for the role — the character is supposed to be six but he looked more like 10 to me) because instead of making the mortgage payment one month she spent $2,000 replacing a busted air conditioning system, and in Houston (one of the rare Lifetime movies that actually does a good job of letting us know where it’s supposed to be taking place) you don’t want to live without air conditioning. We find out that she’s raised Alec as a single mom his whole life because his father died when she was still pregnant with him. We also meet Sidney (Natalia Cigliuti, who looks enough like Sarah Lancaster I sometimes had difficulty telling the two apart, though as the plot develops we realize the importance of the two women having at least some resemblance to each other), Gwen’s best friend and co-worker at the Tomkins insurance agency, run by Dwight Tomkins (David Born) — for some reason’s character list spells the last name as the more common “Tompkins” but the “p”-free version is the one we see on his office door, and one day they’re out in the park when Sidney drives off just as Gwen, who’s gone there to jog, realizes that her tire has gone flat and she’s helpless about how to fix it. Help arrives, seemingly providentially, in the person of Ed Baker (40-year-old actor Drew Waters, who though the usual “type” for a Lifetime leading man — tall, lanky, sandy-haired, attractive without being obstreperous about it — is far hotter than the norm, especially dressed in the skin-tight blue jeans Lifetime’s costume designer, Lacy King, provided for him), who helps her put on her spare tire, warns her that the spare is only for temporary use (it’s one of those modern inventions that’s only half the thickness of a normal tire) and she needs to get it fixed, then says, “I’m sorry. I got awfully preachy there for a moment.” Ed tells Gwen he’s a “drug pusher” — a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company — and he lives and works in Austin but frequently comes to Houston on business. Ed and Gwen start dating, and he wins Alec’s affections by beating him at a video game, but of course, this being a Lifetime movie (especially one with that title!), he’s not really a drug salesman. He’s really a minister of a snazzy church he’s built with the money he got from his rich wife Kelly (Julia Barnett) — the church comes equipped with a side canopy which seems to have no discernible function (“What is this, drive-through communion?” I wondered) — and not only is he married, something he’s neglected to tell Gwen, he has two kids and a seemingly contented family life.

Meanwhile, Gwen is beset by her financial woes — she goes to her mother Ellen (Eleese Lester), who lends her $3,000 to keep the house after first asking why she doesn’t just sell it and move back in with mom — and also by Ellen’s distaste for every man Gwen has seen since the death of Alec’s father. In the middle of all this we see a scene in which Gwen’s friend Sidney, who’s there to baby-sit Alec while Gwen goes out on a date with Ed, takes out her smartphone in Gwen’s kitchen and for some weird reason that doesn’t get explained until much later starts taking photos of Gwen’s kitchen knives. Later we learn that not only is Ed having an affair with Gwen, he’s really in love (or at least lust) with Sidney, and the whole thing is a plot the two of them have cooked up in which Sidney will kill Ed’s wife and set Gwen up to take the fall, so the wife will be dead, Gwen will be facing either life imprisonment or death (and remember this is taking place in Texas, the state that executes more people than all the other 49 U.S. states combined!) and Ed will have both Sidney and his late wife’s fortune. In the meantime Sidney pulls some other stunts on Gwen, like shredding the check Gwen was going to mail through her company’s mail service to pay the mortgage with her mom’s money (though after that the whole foreclosure plot line is dropped like the proverbial hot potato). She duly kills Ed’s wife — she’s also stolen Gwen’s cell phone (earlier we’ve seen her steal Gwen’s keys and have them duplicated so she can get into Gwen’s house any time she wants) so after the murder it to send a text message to Ed that essentially says the deed has been done — and the police detectives assigned to the case (one of whom is played by co-scenarist Dean) naturally arrest Gwen and she goes on trial for murder. Fortunately, Gwen’s mom is able to make contact with private investigator David Wyatt (Brian Mitchell, who looks so young for the part that the moment he entered I thought, “What is this, Doogie Howser, P.I.?”), who was hired by Kelly Baker before her murder to find out if Ed was cheating on her, and mom hires Wyatt to find out if Ed was involved in his wife’s murder and, if so, who his accomplice was — because he has a solid alibi (a church board meeting) and therefore couldn’t have murdered his wife himself.

Wyatt duly finds out about Sidney’s role, and in a typical Lifetime climax we learn that Sidney was actually the sister of Jake, Alex’s father, a married man with whom Gwen was having an affair seven years earlier, who angrily broke it off after Gwen reported she was pregnant with his child, slapped her across the room and then got Gwen arrested for assaulting him (“The son of the police chief was a good friend of his,” we’re told), after which that night he got drunk, got in an auto accident and totaled both his car and himself. Sidney never forgave Gwen for her involvement in Jake’s death, and hatched this elaborate revenge plot so Gwen would suffer for killing her brother — including spending four years pretending to be Gwen’s best friend. Only Gwen discovers this when she visits Sidney’s home and sees a photo of her with Jake, and Sidney decides that rather than wait for the state of Texas to knock off Gwen for them, they’ll have to do it themselves — and there’s a typical Lifetime climax in which Wyatt, following Sidney, comes upon her and Ed about to throw Gwen into the river and drown her. Wyatt pulls a gun on them but Ed manages to distract him and get the gun away from him (why Wyatt didn’t use his cell phone — surely, as a modern-day P.I., he has one! — to call the police and/or to record the conversation between Sidney and Ed is a mystery). Sidney grabs the gun while Ed and Wyatt are fighting and shoots Wyatt — fortunately non-fatally — and in the end Gwen distracts Sidney by stabbing her in the foot with a knife, and ultimately the police arrive (though there’s no evidence anyone called them) and justice is done. One reviewer said that with more coherent writing and more subtle direction the film could have compared with Hitchcock’s thrillers, but faulted the writers for revealing Sidney’s role too early (ironically, the real Hitchcock made exactly the opposite change in Vertigo — the book he was adapting didn’t reveal that the two women played in the movie by Kim Novak were in fact the same person until the very end, but Hitchcock placed the reveal about two-thirds of the way through and created both a galvanic shock scene and an emotionally revelatory moment for James Stewart’s character); I quite liked the film — it was definitely several cuts above the usual Lifetime sludge — though I could have done without the hard-to-believe ending as well as the tag scene hinting at a burgeoning romantic interest between the newly exonerated Gwen and Doogie Howser, P.I. Also, Sarah Lancaster was a rather blank presence emotionally and both Drew Waters and Natalia Cigliuti out-acted her — but then in this sort of story the villains are usually more interesting than the heroes anyway.