Monday, June 5, 2017

The Perfect Soulmate (Pierre David and Tom Berry Productions, N B Thrilling Films, Lifetime, 2017)

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

I watched the evening’s “feature,” a Lifetime “premiere” movie called The Perfect Soulmate whose credits immediately warned me I was likely to be disappointed because both the producers (Pierre David and Tom Berry) and the directors (Curtis James Crawford and Anthony LeFresne) were frequent collaborators, including on previous “Perfect” projects, of Lifetime’s greatest writer, Christine Conradt, but la Conradt herself was not involved this time. Instead the writer was someone named John Serge, and that was doubly disappointing: not only was Conradt not involved but a man was taking her place in scribing a tale about women’s miseries and maltreatments both of men and each other. The “Perfect … ” template as Conradt and others have been working it since Conradt sold her first Lifetime script, The Perfect Nanny, in 2000, features an innocent heroine who thinks she’s found the “perfect” husband/lover/co-worker/nanny/teacher/servant/in-law/whatever until horrible things happen to her and those around her and finally she realizes that “perfect” really means “psycho.” The Perfect Soulmate suffers from the lack of the kind of dimension Conradt has brought to at least some of her villainesses; instead the title character, Lee Maxson (Cassandra Scerbo, who like most Lifetime villainesses is of medium height, dark-haired and affects a veneer of perkiness), is a pretty straightforward bad girl whose backstory is that she murdered her abusive father (we’re never told whether dad merely beat her or sexually molested her as well), though the authorities ruled it suicide, and thought she’d be able to get out of the generic small town (actually a big enough city to have at least two book publishers headquartered there) where all this takes place to New York City to pursue a career in publishing. 

Instead she got trapped as the unwilling caregiver of her diabetic mother Marlene (Deborah Grover) and ended up in a sucky life in which she got to do nothing all day except work at a bookstore to make ends meet and go home to take care of mom — who asks her why she doesn’t have a boyfriend and Lee fires right back that it’s because caring for Marlene leaves her no time or energy to date. Lee takes care of Marlene when she goes into an attack and collapses on the kitchen floor near the refrigerator, and instead of getting mom something to eat Lee — in a scene suggesting that either she or John Serge has seen the 1941 film The Little Foxes, in which Bette Davis dispatched her invalid husband by refusing to get him his heart medication — instead kicks her, walks out of the house and leaves her to die. The “perfect soulmate” Lee thinks she’s found is Sarah Miles (Alex Paxton-Beesley), unhappy wife of construction-company owner Daniel Miles (Jeff Teravainen) — the more directors Crawford and LeFresne show us of his unclad chest in his opening scene, the more we’re sure that like virtually all attractive guys in Lifetime movies, he’s going to turn out to be a no-good rotter, and indeed he does. He spends virtually all his evenings away from home on so-called “business meetings” which are, of course, actually trysts with other women — the cops later pick up one of his paramours and she says, “It was my first time,” to which the laconic woman cop who’s going to solve the whole thing replies, “It certainly wasn’t his” — and when she threatens to divorce him, he announces that he’ll cut her off from his entire fortune and leave her penniless (which she doesn’t mind, or at least says she doesn’t) and that he’ll demand and get sole custody of their daughter Megan (Habree Abrys Larratt). That she decidedly does mind, and so she remains stuck in the marriage until she finally gets up the courage to see a divorce lawyer, a woman who says she’ll hire private investigators to tail Daniel and catch him cheating, which hopefully will give her the evidence she needs to break up her pre-nuptial agreement and get her a decent settlement and at least shared custody of Megan. 

Only Daniel, who as a building contractor is used to working with “shady” people, makes the P.I.’s tailing him on the first night and tells Sarah that she’s got two choices — either abandon the divorce, or pursue it but at the cost of never seeing her daughter again. Then Daniel leaves for one of his evening trysts — and who should be waiting for him but Lee, who has “met” Sarah online through her poetry blog. It seems that when Sarah met Daniel she was an aspiring poet who had already brought out one book of verse with a local independent publisher, Will Lawrence (Scott Gibson) and convinced a number of people in the literary world that she was the next Sylvia Plath, even though what we hear of her poetry makes it sound like her true métier would be writing for greeting-card companies. She’s continued to publish poetry on a blog which Lee has stumbled across and decided on the basis of her poems that Sarah is the one woman who will understand her, love her and be her “perfect soulmate.” So she starts stalking Sylvia at her home, sees Daniel slap her during their argument over her seeing a divorce lawyer, and as Daniel goes out for his next tryst Lee sticks him up, shoots him with the same gun with which she killed her dad years before (Crawford and LeFresne give us a lot of close-ups of her giving loving attention to the gun so we realize it is the same weapon), and leaves him for dead. She also takes his wallet to make it look like a robbery, but does not steal his car even though she found a key for it (as well as one for his house, which will be an important plot point later) — which mystifies the woman detective put in charge of the case, Chris Collins (Gwenm Carsley —where did casting directors Aaron Griffith, Lisa Parasyn and Ilona Smyth dig up all these actors with such oddball names?), until she finds a witness to the crime, a neighbor who saw that the killer got out of a late-model sedan to commit the crime and then got back in it to escape. 

Sarah (one wonders whether writer Serge deliberately named the character after the 1970’s actress who made headlines for her scandalous sexual affairs and even did a one-woman show about them, Smiles — originally called S. Miles Is Me — in which she played herself) responds to her new-found freedom from that terrible husband of hers by reconnecting with her former publisher Will (who looks at her with doe eyes that make it seem like he wants to be her next boyfriend) and committing to publish a new book of poetry, compiled from what’s been on her blog as well as new works. He’s convinced there’s still a market for Sarah Miles after Lee gets the store where she works to host a book-signing, and she attracts a surprisingly large audience. Sarah lets Lee into her home — where she repays Sarah’s kindness by sneaking rat poison into the drink bottle used by Sarah’s housekeeper Nina (Edie Inksetter), knocking Nina out for a couple of weeks so Lee can get closer not only to Sarah but to Megan, who comes to call her “Auntie Lee” and who trusts her even after mom stops doing so. The perfect-soulmate relationship between Sarah and Lee starts to cool after Sarah, who’s sought help from Lee on editing some of her poems for the new book, submits the manuscript and starts dating Will. Lee tries to get Sarah a contract with a larger publisher, Solomon House (maybe they could split the book in two and each publish half of it — joke), but Sarah insists that she’s staying with Will, who in turn wants to make sure she’s now fully committed to a career as a writer and won’t just jump ship to marry another rich guy. The movie ends exactly the way you’d expect it to: Sarah, who’s been arrested on suspicion of murdering her husband and is bailed out but under house arrest with an ankle bracelet to make sure she doesn’t leave home, sends Will out on a mission to find out Lee’s real story — while her criminal defense attorney hires a private investigator, Paul Crawford (Norman Mikael Berketa), to check out Lee’s background but the first night he’s on duty he breaks into her home, she catches him, kills him and somehow manages to drag the dead weight of his body (he’s about twice her size) into the trunk of her car and dispose of it without leaving a trace. 

In the finale, Lee comes to Sarah’s home — she lets herself in with the spare key she stole from Daniel after she killed him — and tries to dispose of Will with a single shot to the head, then tries to make off with Megan (is there a rule in the guidelines for Lifetime writers that whenever the good and bad characters are both women, the bad girl must kidnap the good girl’s kid at the end?), and Sarah gets in her car and follows, knowing the signal on her GPS ankle bracelet will alert the cops, they will follow, and in a bit of deductive brilliance worthy of Sherlock Holmes, Detective Collins somehow figures out Lee, not Sarah, is the real killer and arrests her. A tag scene shows Will, alive, well and clearly on his way to becoming Sarah’s next husband and Megan’s stepfather, with Sarah in the Miles home and the natural order of domesticity restored. The Perfect Soulmate is perhaps a bit too “perfect” in its plotting, its meticulous checking off of each Lifetime cliché, but what it really suffers from is the absence of Christine Conradt as writer. Surely she could have come up with a more complex and dramatically interesting villain — especially given the weird scene about an hour and a half in during which Sarah decides to come to Lee’s place and make her dinner, drugging her dessert so she can put Lee under and search her house for the murder weapon. I was beginning to wonder if John Serge was planning a reversal in which Sarah would turn out to be involved with her husband’s murder after all; she had hired Lee to do it with the promise of future payment from Daniel’s estate and now wanted to eliminate her increasingly inconvenient co-conspirator. That underscores another problem with The Perfect Soulmate: the leading characters are all pretty much unlikable. About the only person who comes off as sympathetic in this story is Jay (Asha Talbert), Lee’s African-American co-worker at the bookstore, who at first thinks Lee and Sarah are Lesbian lovers and makes it clear she wants to see Lee get her ashes hauled, and whether it’s by a man or a woman makes no difference to her!