Monday, March 9, 2015

Sugar Daddies (Johnson Production Group, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2014)

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

The film was Sugar Daddies, a 2014 production from Johnson Production Group and Shadowland which Lifetime showed right after their “world premiere” of Babysitter’s Black Book since they were thematically similar — Babysitter’s Black Book is about high-school girls who turn to prostitution to raise the money to go to college, and Sugar Daddies is about college girls who become mistresses of rich men to raise the money to go to law school. From the moment I saw the fictional “Whittendale University” referenced on screen I knew we were in the same universe as Lifetime’s previous productions The Surrogate and Dirty Teacher — like those movies, Sugar Daddies was directed by Doug Campbell and written by Barbara Kymlicka (though this time Ken Sanders, Kymlicka’s writing partner on the previous films, is listed only as one of the four producers along with Robert Ballo, Timothy O. Johnson and Marianne C. Wunch), and again like them it takes a situation that could have stayed good clean dirty fun and ramps up the melodrama to insane lengths. Our Heroine (so to speak) is Kara Jones (Taylor Gildersleeve), an ambitious young Whittendale co-ed who wants to get into a good law school. She’s working her way through college as a bartender and of course fending off the drunken advances of the male Whittendale students who frequent the bar, though she has a steady boyfriend named Justin (Griffin Freeman). There’s the obligatory he-wants-to-have-sex-but-she-puts-him-off scene that makes us wonder if they’ve ever done the down ’n’ dirty even though they’re both past the age of consent, though Kymlicka (has she ever considered changing her name? Given the sort of stuff she writes, “cum licker” seems an excruciatingly inappropriate moniker) does a bit of a change-up and has that scene happen only after Kara has got involved with the titular (probably also an unfortunate term here) sugar daddy, investment broker and/or hedge-fund manager Grant Zager (Peter Strauss, with enough of his good looks left that the thought of sex with him wouldn’t seem totally repulsive — even though casting director Jeff Hardwick didn’t make the mistake of his opposite number in Babysitter’s Black Book of making the older man the heroine was supposedly prostituting herself to considerably hotter than her twerpy-looking age-peer boyfriend).

Kara gets into the gold-digger business (I’m so used to hearing the terms “sugar daddy” and “gold-digger” in 1930’s movies they jar in a modern-day context) at the behest of her roommate Shawna, who invites her to a party whose sole purpose is to put some fresh college-age meat in front of the old rich guys who can make all their dreams come true with their pocketbooks and for whom writing a check for $100,000 is like giving away a quarter to the rest of us. If they don’t do anything else, films like Babysitter’s Black Book and Sugar Daddies certainly express at least a tacit criticism of America’s class system and how — though the growing inequality of wealth and income is a worldwide trend — it’s especially severe in this country because we’ve made the collective political decision we want to be “free” of any social obligations to each other, including making both health care and education basic human rights. Kara is in the pickle she’s in financially because her dad Barry (James C. Burns) is a mere auto mechanic (there’s a nicely ironic scene in which she asks him to fix the Mercedes Grant has just given her and he discovers the registration in Grant’s name, which clues him in as to her daughter’s real relationship with this man) and whatever savings he had to help put her through school got wiped out when he was in an auto accident and his health insurer declined his claims. Grant picks out Kara at that pick-up party and offers her a regular monthly check, plus covering her tuition to law school and a promise to pay off her dad’s medical bills if she’ll perform “special services” for him — he’s careful enough to keep within the letter of the law by not making it explicitly a money-for-sex deal but that’s what it is — and his “enforcer” is his butler and chauffeur Peter (Timothy Brennen), who looked so much like Ted Cassidy in The Addams Family I started calling him “Lurch.” Apparently, judging from the bits of backstory Kymlicka throws into her script, Grant actually worked himself up from a background as financially challenged as Kara’s (one can’t help but wonder if he, like Jay Gatsby, had a Gay “sugar daddy” of his own!) and served in a war with Peter (judging from their apparent ages, it was probably Viet Nam), where they became fast friends and combat buddies and swore that each would have the other’s back from then on. For most of its running time Sugar Daddies is basically a modern rehash of the 1931 film The Easiest Way — also about a young woman from an impoverished family who becomes the mistress of a rich man but is laden with guilt feelings about it (a parallel that occurred to me while watching Babysitter’s Black Book as well), though Taylor Gildersleeve is hardly in Constance Bennett’s league as an actress and her qualms of conscience become quite tiresome after a while.

But Kymlicka can’t avoid throwing the film into high-octane melodrama for the last third: it turns out that the “special service” for which Grant is willing to pay the medical bills of Kara’s father is erotic asphyxiation — he likes both choking and being choked while having sex — and after he and Kara have a falling-out, his price for taking her back and reopening his wallet is that she recruit her friend Lea (Samantha Robinson) for a three-way. Lea couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the prospect — no boring qualms of conscience for her! — and she slips Kara a pill to help her get through whatever Grant has in mind for them. What Grant has in mind for them is to kiss each other, a prospect that has Kara literally get sick to her stomach, so between her revulsion at having to play at Lesbianism for her sugar daddy and the effects of whatever was in that pill, she’s in the bathroom retching while Grant is in bed strangling Lea and ultimately killing her. When Grant realizes what’s happened he has Peter take the body out of the house and dump it, and when Kara comes to he tells her Lea just got sick and he sent her home in a taxi because he didn’t want her puking all over one of his fancy cars. But Kara saw enough of what was going on — she saw Lea non compos mentis in Grant’s bed before Peter hauled her out of there — to realize that was B.S., and the film ends with a confrontation between Grant and Kara’s dad Barry, following which the police get involved and arrest Grant just as he was about to flee the country in his private plane. Like The Secret Sex Life of a Single Mom, Sugar Daddies seems at least in part an attempt by Lifetime to do their own quickie version of Fifty Shades of Grey before the “official” movie of Fifty Shades came out — it seems that from now on it’s going to be de rigueur in movies about poor girls being sexually exploited and dominated by super-rich guys to show scenes in which the rich guys take them up in their private planes — and I couldn’t help but think that the basic plot of Sugar Daddies could have made a good Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode (of course their version would have started out with someone finding Lea’s body where Peter had dumped it and the cops would have worked backwards to piece together the story) and been twice as entertaining in half the running time.