Sunday, May 1, 2016

Seduced (Market Street Productions, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

After Break-Up Nightmare Lifetime showed a typically ballyhooed “world premiere” of something called Seduced, set in the Los Angeles beach community (with scenes in Santa Monica and Venice Beach as well as L.A. itself), written by Brian McAuley (a name I’ve seen on previous Lifetime movies) and directed by Jessica Janos (a name I haven’t, though judging by this work she’s unlikely to advance the cause of women directors). It’s also about a mother and the daughter she’s raising as a single parent, though this time mom is Caroline Prati (ex-Law and Order Elizabeth Röhm), daughter is Issie (Jessica Amlee, who does not look much like her on-screen mom), and Caroline is single-parenting Issie not because she and Issie’s dad broke up but because Issie’s dad Paul died of cancer two years earlier. Caroline is a redhead (that’s a significant plot point) and Issie a blonde, and when she’s not dealing with Issie’s problems — including, as in Break-Up Nightmare, a boyfriend, Noah (Tanner Stine, not as easy on the eyes as the two young male leads in Break-Up Nightmare but still pretty cute), who dumps her when she won’t have sex with him — she’s the principal accountant for an Internet crowd-funding Web site called Fundercrack. Alas, the owner of Fundercrack, Jason Birch (Robert Mailhouse), is a typical asshole 1-percenter, taking the $3.7 million that was allocated for bonuses to the top staffers (including Caroline herself) and moving it into a “secret account” where he’s spending it on himself, including buying a hot sports car with a six-figure price tag. What’s more, the IRS is investigating Fundercrack and Jason flat-out orders Caroline to commit accounting fraud to conceal his embezzlement — and when she tells him that the only way he can avoid prosecution for tax fraud is actually to pay the bonuses he promised and told the IRS he was going to pay, he counters that the money no longer exists.

While all of this is going on Caroline’s daughter Issie is researching “Missed Connections” — people who might be right for each other but never meet — and has even logged onto a Web site (in Lifetime movies, as too often in real life, the Internet appears mainly as a device to make ordinary sorts of crimes considerably easier to pull off) called Missed Connections. Issie reads an ambiguous note from a man who calls himself Gavin Donati (Jon Prescott, considerably less attractive than one would think his part called for) and immediately concludes that the mystery woman he saw and is trying to attract is her mom. Mom is understandably reluctant to follow up but Issie responds for her, and for the first hour of this film Gavin and Caroline go on a series of increasingly intimate and hot dates — and Gavin, once again displaying the almost supernatural powers of your typical Lifetime villain, is somehow able to slip her handwritten notes giving when and where he wants to see her next into her workplace (in one that particularly amused me, he writes his note on the title page of a book he gives her — one of their trysts took place in a bookstore, which reminded me of the 2002 movie Unfaithful — though that one was originally intended for theatres and had “A”-list, or at least “A-minus”-list, stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane, though Lifetime is where I saw it, in which the man Diane Lane’s character is cheating on Richard Gere with owns a bookstore, and I was wondering if that was the case for Gavin in this one too — instead he claims to be an “international financial consultant”) — in which Caroline turns from a strait-laced woman who apparently hasn’t even thought about sex since her husband died into a ravenous sex pig, doing it in such kinkily public places even Gavin seems put out by her demands. It’s only at one point when they’re taking a bath together in Gavin’s oval-shaped bathtub in his palatial mansion in the Hollywood hills that we start getting an inkling of what he’s really after (though, if nothing else, his rotten fake accent — he seems unable to decide whether he wants to sound English, French or Italian — has made us suspicious), when he offers Caroline an “investment opportunity” and encourages her to embezzle from her company to give him the money.

Midway through the movie Caroline, who’s enthralled with Gavin’s rather nondescript body but so far has maintained enough good sense and moral values not to steal from her company to fund his “investments,” comes to Gavin’s place and meets his other girlfriend, Halle (pronounced “Halley”) (Alexandria Basso), whom he started dating two months before — right around the same time he started dating Caroline. The two hatch a revenge plot to ruin Gavin and bust him for being a con artist — Halle said she’d been about to put her entire life savings into Gavin’s (nonexistent) enterprises — and by the next-to-last act Gavin has been busted not only for being a con artist but for murdering Halle and two young redheaded women, and Caroline is the star of a TV documentary hailing them as the woman who had the courage to fight back against the rotter and lead to his arrest. Only writer McAuley has two surprise reversals up her sleeve in the final act: first, Halle turns out to be alive — she and Gavin were long-term lovers, only Gavin had a way of getting too sexually intense over the redheaded female “marks” she picked out for him and Halle would kill them out of jealousy; she then faked her own death so Gavin would be sent up for murder and she’d be rid of him — and then there’s a final confrontation between the three women (including Caroline’s daughter Issie, who like your standard-issue Lifetime daughter gets herself kidnapped by the baddie at the end) which ends in a bloodbath in that bathtub, with … well, I wasn’t sure exactly what happened at the end but both Halle and Issie end up as blood-spattered corpses and Caroline breezes into Jason’s (ya remember Jason?) office at Fundercrack (ya remember Fundercrack?) and announces that either Jason gives her the company or she reports him to the IRS. He gives her the company and one of the last things we hear is a voiceover from Caroline that sometimes “sacrifices have to be made” — were we supposed to think she killed not only Halle but her own daughter as well? — to be able to get what she wants.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Fritz Lang’s comment on the film Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which he intended as a semi-documentary film against capital punishment (Dana Andrews plays a reporter who fakes evidence that he’s guilty of murder to prove how easily the criminal justice system can unjustly convict someone of murder and execute them), only at the last minute his producer, Bert Friedlob, insisted on a script change by which Andrews’ character really did kill the person he was framing himself for killing and the whole “innocence project” was just an elaborate scheme on his part to conceal his own guilt. In his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenburg for The Celluloid Muse Lang recalled his argument with Friedlob: “I cannot, I said, make an audience love Dana Andrews for one hour and thirty-eight minutes and then in the last two minutes reveal that he’s really a son-of-a-bitch and the whole thing is a joke.” Unfortunately, Jessica Janos and Brian McAuley tried exactly the same sort of reversal with Caroline’s character here — with equally unconvincing results, especially since communicating her new-found (lack of a) moral sense totally threw Elizabeth Röhm as an actress and she’s flat and unbelievable in the final scene. It also doesn’t help that director Janos is addicted to sunset shots — frame after frame of this film looks like the cover of the Eagles’ album Hotel California (indeed, one such shot inevitably inspired me to warble a few bars of its title song) — or that, not content just to show the spectacular California sunsets, she insists on flanging them in that annoying music-video way that’s got really oppressive and which Mark Quod wisely avoided in Break-Up Nightmare. All in all, Seduced was a grandly silly movie — or rather two grandly silly movies arbitrarily spliced together — and a grim reminder of how badly the U.S. film industry’s skills at doing this sort of story have deteriorated since the 1944 Gaslight, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (despite his accent problems!).