Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sugar Babies (Pender Street Pictures 4, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2015)

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

The film was Lifetime’s latest “world premiere,” something called Sugar Babies (oddly, the entry on the film spelled the title as one word, Sugarbabies, but the actual credit listed it as two so that’s what I’m going with) about a Web site called to which nubile young female college students can subscribe so they can attract the attentions of older, wealthier men who will make an “arrangement” with them and pay them for “companionship” which may or may not — but, of course, usually does — include sex. Of course, this has to be done euphemistically in order to get around the laws against prostitution (which, the more I think about it, I think are pretty silly; one of the things I always admired about the late Gloria Johnson was that she thought anti-prostitution laws actually disempowered women, and it was a delight to hear her get into arguments with other feminist women who supported laws against prostitution and porn). If this sounds familiar, it’s because Lifetime has already done this schtick at least twice before in 2015 alone — with Babysitter’s Black Book and Sugar Daddies (which Lifetime re-ran right after Sugar Babies just in case anyone in their audience missed the connection) — and all three of these movies couldn’t help but remind me of how much better MGM did this story idea back in 1931 in the film The Easiest Way, with Constance Bennett as the sugar baby, Adolphe Menjou as her sugar daddy, Robert Montgomery as the age-peer boyfriend who gets understandably upset when she finds out just how his girlfriend is making her living, and Clark Gable (in his first film as an MGM contractee) as the rather stuffy proletarian brother-in-law who leads her family in opposition to the Bennett character’s lifestyle. What’s more, the story wasn’t exactly fresh and original even then; The Easiest Way had debuted as a stage play in 1909 and been filmed previously as a silent in 1917 — there’s a reason prostitution is colloquially referred to as “the oldest profession.”

It doesn’t help that the actors available to MGM in 1931 were considerably better than those on board for a Lifetime producer in 2015 — Alyson Stoner (any relation to Brad Stoner, the local housepainter whose commercials on San Diego TV stations I find irresistibly amusing given what I would think a person named “Stoner” armed with a bunch of paint cans would be likely to do to your house!) as Katie Woods, the central sugar baby; Giles Panton as James Smith, her sugar daddy (and once again the casting directors, Don Carroll and Candice Elzinga, have erred by casting a young, attractive and genuinely hot actor in this role, somebody whom Katie might well have been attracted to even if he didn’t have money and they hadn’t met on a gold-diggers’ Web site!); Keenan Tracey as Sean Clark, the age-peer rival for Katie’s affections; and Hrothgar Mathews and Kerry Sandomirsky as her disapproving parents, who (unlike their counterparts in The Easiest Way, who took a don’t-ask, don’t-tell attitude to all the goodies their daughter was lavishing on them courtesy of her sugar daddy) object to receiving any of the proceeds from her scummy lifestyle. The plot gets so convoluted it’s hard for me to remember which sugar baby was paired with which sugar daddy, but the basic intrigue revolves around Katie and her roommate Tessa Bouillette (Tiera Skovbye), who’s posing as a 1-percent girl herself (she claims her dad is the fabulously wealthy Charles Bouillette, but in fact her dad is John Bouillette, who abandoned her mom while she was still pregnant with her and left them living in a trailer and barely scraping by). Tessa is going on a date with her own sugar daddy but he’s bringing along a friend, so she wants Katie to go along and be the friend’s date. Katie at first is reluctant — she’s been cruised by Sean, a frat boy who’s working his way through college by clerking at the campus bookstore — but when she goes to a party at Sean’s frat house and he gets drunk and pukes on her legs, she calls Tessa on her cell phone and asks if the double date is still on. It is, even though in a black top and blue jeans (she’s done the best she could to clean Sean’s puke off of them) she’s way underdressed for the fancy restaurant the two sugar daddies have picked for their date. Katie keeps dating James Smith and ultimately falls into bed with him — though we get the impression it’s as much from genuine desire (and as I said before, he’s quite a bit sexier than the twerpy Sean!) as to keep the cash spigot flowing, and he offers to fund her schoolbooks as well as underwrite an internship in Florence that will allow her to realize her dreams of being a top interior designer.

The one thing Sugar Babies gets right is its vivid dramatization of just how totally the ability of the female characters to realize their dreams — one thing Tessa briefs Katie on early is the desire of the men who log onto for young women who have career goals of their own and aren’t expecting to be supported by rich men all their lives — is dependent on their ability to attract men already in the 1 percent and “put out” for them. (I remember one story I recently read about a woman who trained to be an investment banker, was unable to get a job in that field and ended up working as an “escort” for men doing the job she had wanted and trained to do.) It’s a bit of nagging sexism that just adds to the overall evil of capitalism — men can make it on their talents but women can get that necessary hand-up only if they hand over their bods — and is about as close as this movie gets to social comment. Oddly, the most pathetic (in the good sense) character is the oldest and richest sugar daddy of all, Saul Williams (Ken Camroux-Taylor), a septuagenarian who’s built and sold several companies and is sitting on a huge fortune with no one to share it with since his wife died of cancer three years previously — “It proved to me that there were some things money couldn’t buy,” he says ruefully in what’s by far the best line of Becca Topol’s (any relation?) and David DeCrane’s script — whose sugar baby strings him along throughout the entire movie until she finally announces that she’s ready to have sex with him. He takes her to a fancy hotel, intending to treat her to a room-service dinner before they get to the down ’n’ dirty, only when she’s stripping for him and straddling him in bed, he gets so excited he has a heart attack and dies. (Wasn’t there a really bad movie starring Madonna which kicked off with just this plot premise — she gets the rich guy who’s keeping her so hot and bothered he gets a heart attack and croaks, and then she’s arrested and tried for murdering him?) She calls one of the other girls for advice and is told just to leave the room and walk away, but instead she has an attack of conscience and calls 911.

Meanwhile, Katie blows it with James Smith by being a little too insistent in her financial demands, and he tries to pass her on to another one of his rich buddies, only she gets disgusted at being treated like a commodity (hey, what did she expect?) and decides to be a poor, struggling college student racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans instead. I think the business of nubile female college students selling their bodies to rich men for the money to finish their education is one Lifetime should give a rest to — there are a couple of titillating soft-core porn scenes in this one but nothing to get that excited about (frankly, I was hoping that old guy would rise to the occasion — literally and figuratively — and give that sugar baby what she would afterwards exultantly claim was the greatest fuck she’d ever had!), and I think they’re reaching a point of diminishing returns with this trope. It’s not that Sugar Babies is a bad movie; it’s just mediocre, with the Topol-DeCrane script given just the sort of functional but indifferent direction it deserves by Monika Mitchell. (This is not one of the Lifetime movies that will advance the cause of women directors.) Indeed, for me the most interesting moment was a bit of gender-ambiguous dialogue that briefly left the impression that at least one of the hot young male students had a Gay sugar daddy of his own — now that might be an interesting way for Lifetime to develop this trope in the future, especially if the guy isn’t really Gay and the age-peer rival is a woman!