Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Wife's Nightmare (Sepia Films/Lifetime, 2014)

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

Before Ungodly Acts Lifetime re-ran a movie from 2014 called A Wife’s Nightmare (one of their A _____’s Nightmare series, not to be confused with their The Perfect _____ and The _____ S/he Met Online series) which also turned out to be a well-done thriller, albeit one in which the big reversal three-fourths of the way through wasn’t that much of a surprise after all. Directed by Vic Sarin (I’ve seen his credit on previous Lifetime productions and haven’t been able to avoid the joke, “Ah, it’s directed by a poison gas!”) from a script by Blake Corbet and Dan Trotta, A Wife’s Nightmare begins with what appears to be a perfect suburban family — Gabe Michaels (Dylan Neal), his wife Liz (Jennifer Beals, virtually the only person in this cast I’d heard of before), and their son A. J. (Spencer List), a kind-of dorky but basically good-looking teenage kid. Their apparently idyllic existence is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a 19-year-old blonde named Caitlin (Lola Tash), who claims to be Gabe’s son by a woman he dated briefly before he met Liz. Then we see that the family isn’t as idyllic as we thought at first: Liz is the breadwinner — she works for a P.R. firm and is currently in the middle of preparing a make-or-break presentation for a Japanese entrepreneur about to develop a resort in the U.S. which will spell mega-success or mega-failure not only for the entrepreneur but the P.R. company as well — and just resumed work two months earlier after a nervous breakdown. Gabe is a not-so-young man who in the 1990’s was in a rock band that put out two CD’s and had a minor degree of fame for their 15 minutes; when they expired, Gabe kept the dream and Liz has put a second mortgage on their house so he can complete a comeback album he’s recording in a studio he’s built in to their home. A. J. is a troubled student who’s already been suspended from high school for fighting with the other kids. Caitlin’s claim to be Gabe’s — but not Liz’s — daughter just upends these people’s already frail holds on their own as well as each others’ mental health. A draft of the presentation mysteriously disappears from Liz’s laptop just as she’s supposed to deliver it to her employer, and she’s solemnly warned that if her mental demons cause any more screw-ups she’ll be canned.

Liz notices Gabe and Caitlin at one of their many barbecue parties (the characters are shown having so many barbecue parties one wonders if they ever eat anything actually cooked indoors) and sees them embracing, with Gabe’s hand reaching down Caitlin’s back and giving it an affectionate pat in the small of her back that makes Liz wonder if the bond between them goes beyond that of a father and child. Between the attentions Liz is showing towards Gabe and those she’s showing towards A. J. — at one point the two of them kiss on the lips and that also raises Liz’s suspicions — Liz begins to wonder if Caitlin is really Gabe’s daughter and therefore she’s obliged to let this preposterous woman live in their house and bond with them as a family member. Caitlin announces that she’s got a job at an independent record store that sells CD’s but specializes in vinyl — it may be news to some readers but such places actually exist, fueled by a youth rebellion against digital music and the conviction that recordings sound richer and more “complete” in an analog medium — and the real-life stores I’ve been in (and sometimes bought things at) are laid out pretty much like the one in this movie, with the vinyl taking pride of place on the shop floor (the way it used to before CD’s existed) while the CD’s are relegated to shelves on the walls, and most of the people who come in are browsing the vinyl. Gabe, of course, is familiar with the place — he would be since he’s a retro-rocker himself — and he comes there often to see Caitlin and her co-worker Alison (Nicole Hombrebueno — and just how did her family get the name “good man”?) and to browse the store (one suspects he’s looking to see if they’re still selling copies of his old band’s 1990’s recordings). A. J. also comes to the store, and given that he’s being shown as one of those guys who’s terminally shy around girls and can’t bring himself to ask someone for a date even if he’s got reason to believe the someone might actually be interested in him, he’s obviously got such of a case of the hots for Caitlin one expects Caitlin to take him to a dark corner of the store and tell him, “We don’t just sell pop music here. We’ve got a copy of an opera you might be interested in — Wagner’s Die Walküre.” (Of course, my fantasy continued with his comeback, “You mean the one where the long-lost brother fucks his sister, and the next morning he has a duel with her husband and gets killed? No, thanks.”)

At one point Gabe produces the results of a DNA test which establishes conclusively that Caitlin is his daughter, but Liz’s suspicions are aroused anyway, especially when she tries to play matchmaker at one of the family’s barbecues between Caitlin and Paul (a hot-looking Steve Richmond), older brother of A. J.’s friend Sean (Alex Ferris, who looks nothing like Steve Richmond beyond them both being young white males), only Gabe has a jealous hissy-fit when he sees Paul coming on to Caitlin. The whole thing unravels one afternoon in which Gabe and Caitlin, thinking they’re going to be alone in the house for a while because Liz is at work and A. J. is at school, go into the master bedroom and start screwing — only A. J., who got into another fight at school, got suspended again, came home early and caught his dad and his “sister” pounding away at each other in the bed dad usually shares with mom. It turns out that Gabe met Caitlin when he casually dropped into that record store while Liz was in the hospital recovering from her breakdown, and the two hit it off, started an affair, only because Liz had all the family money Gabe couldn’t just divorce her to be with his nymphet, so he hit on the idea of driving her crazy permanently and establishing Caitlin in their home by passing them off as “family.” (The “DNA test” was a fake; when Liz drives by the address where the lab was supposedly located, it's an empty lot.) There’s a typically over-the-top climax in which Liz orders Gabe out of the house and takes her symbolic revenge by smashing his beloved guitar — a present she had given him when they were dating and which she really couldn’t afford (she was waitressing at the time) but felt it was important to make sure he had — and Caitlin escaping the whole situation while Gabe is left alone and bereft. The big reversal may be predictable, but at least its very predictability makes it believable (though we still wonder how Gabe thought he was going to get away with passing Caitlin off as his daughter indefinitely when he was also screwing her — especially with Gabe’s son still living with them and bound to find out sometime), unlike some of the plot points Tony Gilroy has thrown at us in movies like Duplicity. Overall, A Wife’s Nightmare is a quite entertaining thriller even though it’s not until the reversal happens that we finally realize why it’s called that!