Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Wrong Car (Moody Independent, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First up on Lifetime’s schedule yesterday, at 6 p.m., was The Wrong Car, an item in Lifetime’s latest cycle — “The Wrong _____,” as opposed to “The Perfect _____,” “The _____ S/he Met Online,” or “_____ at 17.” It was shot under the working title Black Car — a cleverer name because it was a pun on both the literal and colloquial meanings of the word “black” — but someone either at the production companies, Moody Independent and Marvista Entertainment, or at Lifetime itself wanted the phrase “The Wrong … ” to be in the title to key it in with others in the cycle, including the ones I recently watched and reviewed, The Wrong Roommate and Wrong Swipe (the working title for Wrong Swipe was simply Swipe, and from the title I had expected the movie to be about someone who used a credit or debit card in the wrong place and got their identity stolen, not someone who tried out a computer-dating service called Swipe and attracted a stalker). The Wrong Car was an auteur work given that it was written, directed and edited by the same person, John Stimpson, and for its first third it’s actually a quite good suspense thriller revolving (almost inevitably) around the Uber ride-sharing service — or “NetCar,” as Stimpson calls it.

The central character is Trudy O’Donnell (Danielle Savre), a law student who’s taking a class in criminology from a teacher named Dr. Bell (Jeremiah Kissel) — was Stimpson deliberately copying the name from Dr. James Bell, the medical lecturer at Edinburgh University in the 1880’s who was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s teachers and supposedly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes? She also had a bad breakup with a boyfriend two years earlier but only briefly mentions it, nor do we see him. In the opening scene she gets a ride home from a NetCar being driven by Charles (Kevin G. Cox), an O.K.-looking but rather nerdish guy who wants to date her, but she’s not interested in him that way and politely turns him down. On a later evening she lets her roommate Gretchen Healey (Francia Raisa) talk her into going to a club; Gretchen drove her there but Trudy decides to bail in mid-evening and hails a NetCar … only this NetCar driver turns out to be a phony: he’s a serial rapist who poses as a NetCar driver, picks up hot-looking women outside clubs, gives them water from a bottle he’s injected with the “date-rape drug” Rohypnol (one can imagine the direct-to-consumer ads for this stuff, with Bill Cosby in Dr. Huxtable drag as its spokesperson), then takes them to a motel whose desk clerk, Roger (Rhet Kidd), is in on the plot, and rapes them while they’re too stoned to resist. This happens to Trudy, who wakes up in the motel with only the dimmest notion of how she got there, and her memories of the evening, such as they are, are fragmentary and feature an apparent hallucination involving a guy looking like Chucky hovering over the proceedings. She goes through a humiliating five-hour rape exam at the hands of the police, who confirm that she was drugged but are unable to match the DNA of the semen inside her to anything in a law-enforcement database (they find bits of latex, indicating that the rapist wore a condom but it broke), and they give her a supply of the morning-after pill and a referral to an HIV testing service. (It’s indicative of the degree to which HIV and AIDS still have a hold on the public imagination that they don’t think of advising her to get screened for classic STD’s.)

Trudy’s case is assigned to a young African-American detective named Jackson (Christina Elmore) — we’re not told her first name — but Trudy gets frustrated at the slow pace of Jackson’s investigation and decides to take matters into her own hands. She asks her classroom friend Charles for information on NetCar and uses it to sign on as a driver herself in hopes of tracing and catching her rapist. Among her first NetCar clients is an investment broker named Donovan (Jackson Davis — any relation to Jefferson?), whom we’re immediately suspicious of because he’s nice-looking and in Lifetime’s iconography nice-looking men are almost always villains. About one-third of the way through the movie Trudy picks up as NetCar fares Carlos (Walley Walkker) and Juan (Jesse Gabbard), two Latino gangbangers who are originally planning to go to a strip club (they boast that they don’t need strip clubs to find sex partners themselves but one of them has a sister who works there), then put their guns in Trudy’s face and demand first that she give them a five-star customer rating, then pick up a wounded comrade at the other end of town and take him to a secret doctor who will patch him up and extract the bullet without reporting it to the police. It’s at this point that The Wrong Car changes from a pretty good suspense tale to a particularly rancid piece of Lifetime cheese, as virtually nothing in the rest of Stimpson’s script makes a lick of sense. It’s just one weird plot twist after another, as Trudy enlists her roommate Gretchen to join her in her nightly surveillance, they follow the black SUV that picked Trudy up for her rape on the streets and follow it to the motel, where the driver gets out — and it’s Donovan, holding an out-of-it woman and half-carrying, half-dragging her into the room. Trudy calls Detective Jackson, and Jackson sends out a car — only when the officer (Chris Neville) arrives, Donovan is in the room but the woman isn’t. (Anyone who’s ever seen a Marx Brothers movie could figure out how that happened: he’s rented two rooms, with adjoining doors, and got the woman hidden in the other room before letting the officer in.)

Eventually Trudy decides to enlist Gretchen as a decoy, having her hang out in front of the club where Trudy herself was picked up, and Donovan duly picks her up and feeds her the drugged water — only Gretchen has an identical but uncontaminated bottle of water in her purse and she substitutes the clean bottle for Donovan’s dirty one. (How did she and Trudy know what brand of water Donovan buys?) Donovan drives Gretchen to the motel and registers (though the desk clerk warns him this is the last time he’ll accept Donovan’s $500 bribe to cooperate), Trudy watches from her car as Donovan takes her into the room (the one thing she doesn’t think to do is use her smartphone to photograph him; given that the police have been skeptical, to say the least, of her claim that Donovan is the rapist, one would think she would want to document it), and writer-director-editor Stimpson has yet another surprise up his sleeve: there are two men in the room to rape Gretchen, Donovan and the guy in the Chucky mask, who when it’s pulled off his face by a vengeful Trudy turns out to be … her milquetoast classmate Charles, who’s actually Donovan’s brother as well as his partner in crime. There’s a typical end-of-Lifetime-movie struggle in the room before Det. Jackson arrives to take both Donovan and Charles into custody. The Wrong Car could have been a quite good little vest-pocket suspense thriller if Stimpson hadn’t piled unbelievable plot twist on top of unbelievable plot twist — down to having Carlos and Juan, who decided they “owed” Trudy a favor after their ride from hell with her, showing up at the motel for the final confrontation and being her “muscle.” Stimpson has real flair as a director, both in creating atmosphere and getting good performances out of his leads (Danielle Sayre is utterly convincing as the avenging angel out not only to catch her own rapist but get the guy off the street before he victimizes anyone else, and I also quite liked Rhet Kidd as the sleazy desk clerk), but maybe he’ll be better off if he sticks to directing movies based on scripts he hasn’t written!