Sunday, February 1, 2015

Beautiful & Twisted (Silver Screen Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Beautiful & Twisted — the ampersand is part of the original title, though lists Beautiful and Twisted as an alternative title — directed by someone named Christopher Zalla from a script by Teena Booth (essentially Lifetime’s go-to writer when they can’t get Christine Conradt that week), Stephen Kay, Inon Shampanier and Natalie Shampanier — I’m assuming those last two are a married (straight) couple and I can only hope their real-life relationship is better than the one they wrote about! Beautiful & Twisted is based on an actual story, the murder of hotel heir Ben Novack, Jr. (Rob Lowe) by his wife Narcisa “Narcy” Veliz (Paz Vega — an ironic first name given the morals, or lack thereof, of her character!), Narcy’s brother Cristobal (Hemky Madera) and a couple of hit people in Cristobal’s posse. Ben Novack, Sr. built and ran the famous Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, where Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy all stayed, and though his business eventually went south and he had to sell the hotel (and died a few years later), at the time this story opens his wife, Bernice Novack (played by Candice Bergen in one of those step-aside-youngsters-and-let-the-old-pro-show-you-how-it’s-done performances that essentially steals the movie), is still alive in the big house her husband’s money bought them, with a living room the size of an Astaire-Rogers movie set whose centerpiece is a grand piano given the Novacks by Frank Sinatra.

The film is narrated by Rob Lowe’s character in a posthumous flashback — a gimmick that’s been used in great movies like Sunset Boulevard as well as lousy ones like Scared to Death and that I recall on seeing on at least one previous Lifetime film, The Two Mr. Kissels (about two rich kids done to death by their grasping, gold-digging wives) — as he explains the weird upbringing he had: he lived with his parents in a 17th floor suite at the Fontainebleau and literally never saw any kids his own age. The only women he ever met were dancers and showgirls at the hotel, so naturally when he grew up and came of age sexually dancers and showgirls were the only women he was attracted to — which meant that when he wasn’t pursuing his own business as a convention planner (unlike most of the spoiled rich kids on shows like this, he actually made his own way and achieved business success in his own right) he was hanging out strip clubs and paying handsomely for lap dances. He meets Narcy at one such club, and finds that she’s not willing to leap into bed with him at her first glance at his bankroll — she’s a single mom working as a dancer to raise her daughter May (Soni Bringas), and she’s making a pathetic attempt to shield May from the sordidness of what she does for a living even though the girl is on to her and knows exactly how her mom is keeping the proverbial roof over their heads. Ben falls for Narcy big-time and insists she quit her job and marry him — which is just fine with her — and she’s shown in the film as a full-blown femme fatale in the classic noir manner, keeping Ben (and every other male she encounters, it seems) hopelessly hooked by throwing her sexual wiles at them. (In the opening scene, actually set after Ben’s death, she’s shown flashing her huge silicone-enhanced breasts at a bank clerk and thereby gaining access to the cash he has stashed in his safe-deposit box and transferring it to her own.) The other aspect of Ben’s character that provides interest is he’s a huge devotée of superhero comic books in general and Batman in particular — he boasts that he owns the second-largest collection of Batman memorabilia in the world and he even has a working version of the Batmobile used in the 1960’s Batman TV show — and he compares himself to Batman and Narcy to Catwoman. He rescues her from a drunken club patron who’s trying to rape her in the parking lot (though even before he arrives she’s done such a good job fighting the guy off she hardly seems to need rescue!) and the relationship spirals from there, as in “out of control.”

Apparently he’s into playing the sub role in S/M because handcuffs and whips feature prominently in their sexual sessions, and at one point she actually has her two pet thugs put a hood on him, tie him up, punch him out and hold a gun to his head, threatening to kill him unless he gives her the combination to his basement safe — and, amazingly, she’s later able to convince both him and the cops that he consented to this and it was just an elaborate S/M scene. She’s also a girl with a plan, and the plan is to knock off everyone standing between her and the Novack fortune, starting with Bernice — she slips her poison and she collapses but survives, later she has one of her hit guys club her to death in the parking garage below her home and the cops rule the death an “accident” even though Bernice managed to claw her way into the main house and leave blood all along the trail before finally expiring. A few months after she knocks off Bernice she goes after Ben and finally offs him, slipping out of his room in the wee hours of the morning (they’re at a hotel in upstate New York where his company is putting on a convention) and letting in her brother and the two hit guys, who bludgeon him to death. What she doesn’t reckon with is her own daughter May, whom Ben was about to adopt legally and make her his heir — and who’s since grown up and is now played by Seychelle Gabriel — who manages to get Ben’s assets frozen so her mom can’t run through them and party-hearty on her late husband’s money. She plots to have May killed as well, but the cops arrive just in time, catch her hit man and arrest her. Right after this film Lifetime showed a Beyond the Headlines documentary on the real case, which featured some macabre details not used in the movie — like that one of Ben’s kinks was that he liked to have sex with amputees (there’s a scene in the film in which she blackmails him into dropping charges against her over the kidnapping incident by threatening to release photos of his sex scenes — in the movie we just assume they’re S/M hijinks between the two of them but in real life they were shots of his trysts with amputees), or that when he was killed, not only was he first tied up with duct tape so he couldn’t resist, but his eyes were gouged out with a utility knife (a detailed that sickened even our usually unflappable friend Garry, who was watching this with me), which may or may not have had something to do with the fact that one of Narcy’s hired killers had only one eye.

Beautiful & Twisted is one of those frustrating movies that could have been considerably better than it is — I kept thinking of Double Indemnity throughout, also a story about a decent but weak man entrapped into a murder plot by a sexually aggressive and irresistible femme fatale, and also narrated, if not literally from beyond the grave, at least by a character knocking at heaven’s (or hell’s) door (the narration in Double Indemnity is dictated onto a Dictaphone machine by Fred MacMurray’s character as he is mortally wounded), and wondering how 1940’s people like James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder could get this story so triumphantly right while Christopher Zalla, Teena Booth and the rest of her writing committee got this version … well, not really wrong but also falling far short of the story’s interesting potential. As sleazy as the “documentary” version shown after the main program was, it also indicated a lot of really twisted, kinky directions in which the film version could have gone and didn’t (I’m especially fascinated by the business of Ben liking sex with amputees — including the mechanics of how he would find them, especially in the pre-Internet age!), and either a to-the-max bit of modern kinkiness (which would probably have rendered the film unsuitable for Lifetime) or a more restrained classic noir treatment would have been better than the attempt to thread the needle between them we actually got. Part of the problem is Rob Lowe; given that the biggest off-screen thing anyone remembers about him is his sexual shenanigans in a hotel room during a Democratic convention, it’s almost inevitable that he get cast in things like this and Drew Peterson: Untouchable (in which he was the killer, and he acted considerably better than he did as the victim here!), but there’s something superficial about him, something too light-hearted to make him work as the driven Ben Novack, Jr. Fred MacMurray wasn’t any great shakes as an actor, either, but Wilder got a laconic, emotionally restrained performance out of him that works far better for this type of story than Lowe’s almost terminal charm — it’s as if Lowe and his director and writers desperately wanted us to like this guy and see him as a pathetic victim of a sexual snare, but he’s too much of a sleazepit to make it work and instead we end up thinking through most of the movie that these two deserved each other!