Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Bride He Bought Online (Pender Street Pictures, Reel Entertainment, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2015)

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

I watched a Lifetime movie I recorded last weekend that turned out to be surprisingly good: The Bride He Bought Online. Judging from the title I assumed that Christine Conradt was involved, and it turned out she not only wrote the script (solo this time, though on some of her previous Lifetime scripts she’s had collaborators) but directed (her debut in that role) — and turned in a mighty fine job as director, bringing to the film all the tight suspense editing and neo-Gothic atmosphere needed for a Christine Conradt script to work on screen. Judging from the title and the previews I had expected a story something like the 1949 film Caught — naïve young woman with dreams of marrying into money meets a super-rich guy online and ends up in a miserable marriage, then realizes her only option if she wants to save her sanity (or her life) is to flee — but I guess the powers that be at Lifetime decided they’ve done this trope to death lately (without the marriage, it’s the basic plot of Fifty Shades of Grey and all the ripoffs of that mega-hit Lifetime has been doing lately, including Sugar Daddies) and so instead Conradt’s story centers around three high-school seniors, Kaley (Annalisa Cochrane), Avery (Anne Winters) and Mandy (Lauren Gaw), who have started a supposedly secret blog (though with over 3,000 followers how secret can it possibly be?) on which they post smartphone video footage of pranks they’ve played on the unsuspecting.

While surfing the Web they stumble on a dating site for men seeking women from outside the U.S. to marry — the sort of thing that caters to the hard-core sexists out there who have decided American women are too pushy and mouthy and want more submissive females from other cultures where women are still being raised to be subservient to men. (There’ll probably be mass heart attacks among these creatures if Hillary Clinton gets elected President.) As a gag for their blog, they decide to create a fake profile and post it to this site, grabbing a photo of a model from the Philippines named Diwata (who, unbeknownst to them, is actually dead, though since a still photo of her is shown Conradt and her producers, Pierre David and Tom Berry, needed an actress, Kaitlyn Fae, to “play” her for the photo) and writing up the sort of profile they think would attract a suitable pigeon they can humiliate on the Web. Said pigeon is John (Travis Hammer), an ace computer programmer who, like virtually all movie characters who work with computers, is drawn as a nerd (though Travis Hammer is tall, thin, reasonably well built and with a nice face — apparently they thought that by giving him a bad haircut and a scraggly three-day shadow on his cheeks they could make him look homelier than he is), and who’s sufficiently attractive that he blows off an attempt by co-worker Quincy (T. J. Alvarado) to set him up with a woman and also fends off the advances of his neighbor Wanda (Kesia Elwyn), a marvelously ambiguous character who seems to be involved in some vague but obviously illegal enterprise that turns out to be human trafficking. Anyway, the girls invite John to meet “Diwata” at the airport and then stand him up (though for a while I was thinking they’d actually have Mandy, whose last name is Kim, whose parents are Korean and who’s therefore the only one of the trio who could pass herself off as Filipina, meet John and impersonate the fictitious “Diwata”) and post the video of him pacing the airport, staying there for hours and finally realizing that “Diwata” wasn’t going to show onto their blog — from which it “goes viral” and twists the knife into John’s humiliation.

John hatches an elaborate revenge plot which involves him hiring a male prostitute named Nick (Randy Blekitas, by far the cutest guy in the movie, far out-foxing Avery’s wimpy, nerdy boyfriend Trevor, played by Chase Austin). Nick shows up, collects his usual $200 fee, then starts to take off his pants and is startled when John explains he doesn’t want to have sex with Nick — “I’m not Gay,” he says, and Nick reacts with an “I’ve heard that one before” shrug before John explains what he does want to hire Nick to do: to cruise Kaley and Mandy at the skateboard arena where they hang out and get himself invited to a “party” so John can kidnap the girls, hold them in a deserted old building (some sort of industrial construction with a lot of corridors so that, even if they free themselves from the straps he’s tied them up with, they’ll have no idea how to get out) and terrorize them with what sort of fate he has in mind for them. Eventually it develops that his revenge for the girls having tormented him and put him in so much emotional pain will be to sell them to human traffickers, and he actually turns Kaley over to a tall, intimidating-looking guy — only the guy reneges on paying John, so he takes the other two girls back to his hideout. The one true good guy in all this is the detective the police put in charge of finding the kidnapped girls, Kathy Schumaker (a marvelously hard-edged performance by Alexandra Paul), who is able to trace Nick and get him to rat out John. Though Nick has no idea where John is holding the girls, Avery manages to make a call on a cell phone she concealed on her person and the police are able to use that signal to trace where they are and rescue them — though not before John becomes a true figure of pathos as he makes a speech about how sorry he is that his desire for love and companionship led to all this, and then shoots himself.

What’s especially fascinating about The Bride He Met Online is the moral complexity and dramatic ambiguity that sets Conradt’s work (as melodramatic and silly as it gets sometime) apart from that of other Lifetime writers: John isn’t an altogether bad guy — a basically decent man who stakes so much on his mail-order girlfriend that when he’s set up, and especially when he’s publicly humiliated on the Internet, he’s pushed into a mean and twisted form of revenge (in some ways he’s a male version of Madame Butterfly), and Kaley is shown as a selfish little creep whose only concern is building a popular blog that she can sell for a fortune no matter how many people get hurt in the process. We want to see her get her “comeuppance” even though we’re also horrified by what happens to her at the end and think being forced into prostitution and turned into a sex slave is far more dire a fate than she deserves. I was amused to read the posts about this film on the message boards, and in particular how many people were bothered by the fact that Conradt created both John and Kaley as multi-dimensional characters, neither all good nor all bad, and wanted this film to have more clearly defined heroes and villains than the anti-hero and anti-villain Conradt gave them. I was also amused that at least two of the message board contributors wondered if Conradt was setting up a sequel — which in this case might not be a bad idea: a The Bride He Bought Online, Part 2: Kaley’s Revenge might actually be quite a good movie. The Bride He Bought Online is quite an impressive directorial debut for Christine Conradt and makes me wish she can do more movies as a director — indeed, she’s good enough to break out of the Lifetime ghetto and make films for theatrical release.