Sunday, April 16, 2017

Secrets in Suburbia (MarVista Entertainment, Sunshine Films, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on the TV last night for the second “Premiere” movie on Lifetime, something originally called Secrets and Sins but aired under the much duller title Secrets in Suburbia. One would think it’s really not that novel an observation that people in suburbia often have affairs with people other than the ones they’re married to, but Damián Romay, who both wrote and directed this (and therefore, as I like to say about bad movies in which the director and writer were the same person, he has no one to blame but himself), seems to act like he’s just discovered it. The page on the film fails to identify one of the four leading actresses (there’s only one significant male part) — the young, attractive Black woman who plays Monica, the divorce attorney who as the film begins has just successfully represented Scarlet (Tara Conner) in her divorce from a man named Troy. The film begins at a party where Scarlet is celebrating her divorce and thanking the friends who made it possible and supported her through it at their regular Thursday night get-togethers at which they absent themselves from any menfolk in their lives, get drunk on wine, play card games and gossip, gossip, gossip. It’s also established that the action takes place in a college town and all the principal characters — Monica, Scarlet, Kim (Linn Bjornland), Gloria (Brianna Brown, top-billed) and her husband Phil (Joe Williamson) — attended the college, which is called St. Francis. However, while Scarlet, Gloria and Kim all came from families with money, Monica and Phil were scholarship students and, as George Orwell described his life in a British prep school in his grim essay “Such, Such Were the Days,” the students with money looked down heavily on the students without it, bullied them and called them “charity cases.” That didn’t stop Gloria from agreeing to marry Phil when he proposed after Scarlet dumped him, but she’s kept him on a strict allowance and has set up the $10 million she inherited from her father in a tightly controlled trust fund he isn’t allowed to touch because it’s being saved for their kids (they have a son named Bradley, played by Brody Behr, and a daughter who’s sort of in the background, and they pack the kids away to summer camp at the start of the plot so writer Romáy doesn’t have to slot them into the later action).

The big thing that happens at Scarlet’s divorce party is that her ex, Troy, shows up with a gun, threatens her and her three best friends, then shoots himself in front of her guests — but that is pretty much forgotten through the rest of the film. Instead, we get periodic flashbacks to the party as we learn what else is going on between the four women and Phil. We’re led to believe that Phil’s and Gloria’s marriage is rocky but we don’t realize how rocky it is until we see Phil use a hypodermic to extract a toxic fluid from a blue plastic bottle (it’s antifreeze, we later learn) and inject it through the cork into the wine bottle Gloria is going to take to the next get-together. Gloria pours herself some of the wine and their dog Lulu gets into some of the substance when she throws the cork away and Lulu upends the trash can and drinks it. The result is that Gloria gets severely ill with kidney failure and almost loses her leg, while Lulu’s little kidneys get overwhelmed and the dog croaks. Gloria accuses Phil of still being interested in Scarlet, but via a flashback at the party we learn that Scarlet actually attempted to seduce Phil and got as far as unbuckling his pants (presumably getting ready to go down on him) before Phil told her, “I can’t do this. I’m married.” Nonetheless, Gloria’s suspicions that Phil is cheating on her are proved correct. Phil then attempts to pressure Gloria into breaking, or at least loosening, the restrictions on the trust so Phil can get his hands on Gloria’s father’s money, but Gloria explains that she was so appalled by what her dad did to earn that money she’s sworn never to touch it herself and to leave it to her children to make the moral choice of whether they should use the money or not.

Then we get a scene between Phil and Monica in which it’s established that he hired her to break the trust in exchange for $500,000 of the $10 million Phil would get — only Monica is upping the ante and demanding a full $5 million, half the fortune, and when Phil offers to become her lover instead she makes it clear to him — and us — that all she wants is the money. Finally we learn that it’s the last woman in Gloria’s and Scarlet’s social group, Kim, who’s Phil’s alternate lover and the one he was planning to run away to Buenos Aires with (Gloria found the order for the tickets on Phil’s computer and that’s one reason she was so convinced he was having an affair and planning to leave her), and Gloria not only figures it out but gets a gun and pulls it on Phil while he’s taking a shower. The film then cuts for commercials, and when it resumes Gloria shows up for her usual Thursday night party with the girls with blood across the front of her dress, saying she’s just shot Phil dead in self-defense and asking for their help — only the situation deteriorates. Monica drinks quite a lot of the poisoned wine and ends up crashing her car after she leaves the party, and Kim threatens Gloria with a knife, giving Gloria the excuse to shoot her with the gun and say that was self-defense, too. In a tag scene that suggests Damián Romay has been watching the films of Tony Gilroy as well as those of Alfred Hitchcock, it turns out that Phil wasn’t dead at all: Gloria faked the blood on her dress as part of a revenge plot against him and her supposed “friends,” and instead of killing Phil she reported him to the police so they would arrest him at the airport for attempted murder as well as having embezzled from his employer to finance his Buenos Aires trip.

Charles came home one-third of the way through Secrets in Suburbia and told me when it was over that what he’d seen made no sense — and I assured him that it didn’t make any more sense to me even though I’d seen the film all the way through. It seemed through much of the running time as if Romáy had been attempting to crowd all the Lifetime clichés he could think of into one script, and about the only even remotely creative thing he did was in his casting of Joe Williamson as Phil. Instead of the drop-dead gorgeous type that usually portrays a Lifetime male villain, he cast a stocky guy of medium height and tousled hair, reasonably nice-looking but hardly irresistibly attractive, the sort of actor that generally gets cast on Lifetime as the understanding husband who helps his wife fend off the maleficent attractions of the hot-looking stalker or psycho who’s after her for nefarious reasons. Other than that, and some bizarre touches like the quartet of four cellos that entertains at Scarlet’s party and the use of the fast theme of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville overture (Charles once heard the overture and asked, “Is this the overture to The Barber of Seville, the overture to Aureliano in Palmira or the overture to Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra?” — the joke being that Rossini used the same piece as the overture to all three of those operas) as running gags — it’s established that Gloria herself was an amateur cellist and was good enough to pursue it professionally but gave it up when she married Phil (and there’s a nice scene that shows her frantically playing her cello when she returns home after killing Kim and waits for the police to show up and interrogate her), Secrets in Suburbia is just a typical Lifetime movie, and not an especially good one at that: other Lifetime writers and directors, notably Christine Conradt, have got considerably more out of these familiar situations than Romay did.