Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sole Custody (Johnson Production Group, Annuit Coeptis Entertainment, Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the latest Lifetime offering in what they’ve taken to calling their “Saturday Night SoCial” series (at least I think that’s the typography they want from this series!), Sole Custody, one of those shrieking melodramas Lifetime puts on that would actually be better if the writers (Gary Imhoff and Brian Young) and the director (Brenton Spencer) had possessed what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called “the supreme facility of the artist: the gift of knowing when to stop.” The plot — actually there are several plots bumping into each other like crash-’em cars at an old-style amusement park, but the two main ones are the increasing estrangement between two police officers who are also married to each other and the parents of a seven-year-old son, and the case the woman in this relationship is working on in which she’s going online to pose as a teenage girl and thereby attract a particularly elusive serial rapist the department is after. The rapist is especially skilled in computer hacking and is able to jump around enough so that the cops can’t trace him to any one ISP or computer network. The cops are Our Heroine, Zoey Logue (the last name isn’t listed on but it’s the one I thought I saw on a newspaper headline insert in the show), played by Julie Benz; and her husband Barry (Rick Ravanello). Barry claims to have to work long hours because he’s undercover on a case, only when he tells Zoey he didn’t come home one night because he crashed at his partner’s place after a long shift on the job, the partner inadvertently “outs” the lie and leaves Zoey convinced that he’s having an affair. The fact that he’s suddenly become disinterested in sex with Zoey and is often sleeping on the couch even when he does come home isn’t helping their relationship either. Zoey has just about had it with Barry when the film opens but is determined to maintain at least the appearance of a successful marriage for the sake of their son Tommy (Maxwell Kovach), since Zoey was raised by a single mom and suffered enough from that she doesn’t want her son to have the same fate.

Unfortunately, Zoey also has a busybody friend named Ann (Chelah Horsdal) who to my mind is the real villain of the piece, since her wretched and insistently pushed “advice” to Zoey on how to handle her potentially straying husband consists of refusing to talk to him, pushing him out of the house, preventing him from seeing his son and ultimately filing for divorce while insisting on keeping both the house and the boy. Barry is understandably freaked out by this, and if Imhoff and Young had stopped here — with the two hatebirds locked into an increasingly bitter custody battle over Timmy while still having to work together as police officers to solve crimes, and with the story of the serial rapist (ya remember the serial rapist?) and Zoey’s involvement as part of the force’s computer-crimes unit to apprehend him and set herself up as a decoy to attract him — they could have had a tight, suspenseful and believable thriller. But of course, being modern writers — and modern Lifetime writers, at that — they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop there: in the middle of the story Zoey wakes up to find her house is burning down and she desperately tries to wake up and save Timmy, but can’t come to in time. What’s weird about this scene is it’s supposed to represent the turning point in the story, but because earlier sequences had shown Zoey having nightmares when Barry left her alone in bed all night, it takes us a while (well, it took me a while, anyway) to realize that the fire, and Timmy’s death from it, were supposed to be real events in the story. At least the fire was; for the second half of the movie Zoey finds herself accused of arson and criminally negligent homicide in the death of her son, and everyone on the force, including her ex as well as her current computer-crimes partner Fish (Maxwell Kevin Anderson, whose head shot makes him look considerably hotter than he does in the movie, where he’s given Buddy Holly glasses and a geeky haircut to establish him as a standard-issue computer nerd) is convinced she drank, took sleeping pills, fell asleep smoking a cigarette (she insists she used to be a smoker but had long since quit) and thereby set her house on fire and killed her son. The main reason they believe this is that the toxicology report on her while she was unconscious and in the hospital showed nicotine, alcohol and sleeping pills in her system — and she’s told throughout the whole second half of the movie, even by her so-called “friend” Ann, that the “evidence” against her is so overwhelming she should just accept what she’s done, seek therapy and throw herself on the mercy of the court as best she can. Naturally, being not only a cop but a thriller heroine as well, she won’t accept that.

She gets bailed out of jail, only to have her bail revoked when she sneaks into the police station to peek at the records of the case, then escapes from jail after subduing a male prisoner almost twice her size who became violent in the holding area, enlists the aid of a 16-year-old hacker whom she and her partner previously arrested on suspicion that he was the serial rapist (the whole plot line about the rapist gets dropped along the way, though there’s a hint that there really wasn’t a serial rapist and the 16-year-old — who was actually cute in a bearish sort of way — invented the whole thing and used his hacking skills to make it look like a serial rapist was predating online) and ultimately realizes that her soon-to-be ex-husband Barry set up the whole thing. He burned their house down, after first spiriting Timmy out of it and leaving behind another kid’s body — an eight-year-old boy who’d been killed in a car accident — with the hoped-for result that he would have Timmy, his wife would have a murder rap against her, and he’d retire from the police force and flee the state to join his relatives elsewhere. The finale features Zoey confronting Barry in a motel on the outskirts of town just outside the state border and having a violent confrontation — though she’s savvy enough to turn on the video camera of her cell phone and thereby broadcast back to police headquarters exactly what’s going on, including Barry’s confession — in which she shoots out the gas tank of Barry’s car so he can have the experience of thinking Timmy is dead — which he isn’t, Zoey having previously instructed him to play hide-and-seek so he was safe behind a dumpster when Zoey shot out the gas tank of Barry’s car and the police finally figure out where the motel is and arrive in time to take Barry into custody. Sole Custody was actually great fun, and there was real suspense and uncertainty about the ending (it wouldn’t have surprised me if Fish had turned out to be both the serial rapist and the arsonist who burned down Zoey’s house, his motive being a decidedly unrequited crush on her), but the multiple plot reversals and piling of credibility-stretching event on top of credibility-stretching event, as well as the baroque overdirection by Brenton Spencer, made this considerably less entertaining than it could have been.