Sunday, July 23, 2017

Seduced by a Stranger (Pender Street Pictures/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night’s Lifetime movie was Seduced by a Stranger, only there were at least two other titles considered — the page on it lists it as He Loves You Not (as in the old flower petal-plucking game, “He loves me … he loves me not … ,” which actually is featured in the final act) but shows a graphic advertising the film as Ring of Deception (a bit deceptive itself because quite a lot of jewelry figures in the story, but a ring isn’t the key item — it’s a bracelet). One would think a Lifetime movie called Seduced by a Stranger would be either about a married woman having a sexual fling with someone other than her husband, and her adultery partner turning out to be a crazed stalker out to kill her husband and get her for himself permanently; or a single woman having a sexual fling with someone who turned out to be a crazed stalker. Instead Seduced by a Stranger, directed by Scott Belyea and written by Suzanne Dunn, is about a con artist and jewel thief, Martin Hale (Steve Bacic, who’s O.K.-looking but considerably heftier and beefier than either the tall, lanky, sandy-haired types Lifetime casts as its sympathetic men or the hot studs Lifetime casts as its male villains), who along with his partner André (Jim Shield) introduces himself to rich young (or youngish) women, seduces them, gets them to trust him, then rifles their safes, steals their valuables and gives the loot to André, who fronts as a legitimate jeweler, to fence.

The latest pigeon he’s latched on to is the film’s heroine, Julie Stevens (Chandra West, top-billed), who’s his neighbor in the “Salt Lake” community he’s just moved into and who has made nearly $2 million running a modern-art gallery with her partner Elizabeth Smith (Françoise Yip, a marvelously multicultural name). Julie is the single mother of a teenage son, Charlie (Madison Smith) — ordinarily I’m not attracted to guys that young but he seemed a lot hotter than his mom’s would-be seducer — and by Suzanne Dunn’s authorial fiat, Charlie falls in love with Martin’s daughter Dana (Cate Sproule) just as Martin is mounting a full-court press to seduce Charlie’s mom. Exactly what happened to Julie’s ex, Charlie’s father, is a bit of a mystery: at first we assume they just divorced but later we see Julie at a high point in the mountains surrounding the town where she’s gone for a jog and she tells a woman of her acquaintance that this is the first time she’s been back to that spot since … which of course leads us to assume that Julie is a widow and her husband died in an accident that occurred there. Anyway, Martin gets Julie’s sexual juices working for the first time since her husband died, disappeared, divorced her or however the marriage ended — much to the approval of her business partner, who thinks it’s about time Julie had a man in her life again. Meanwhile, the Stevenses notice they’re being stalked by someone in a mysterious black car; actually it’s two people stalking them. One is Sloane Draycott (Lucie Guest), who turns out to be the real villainess of the piece: she’s a former victim of Martin’s (or “Eli,” as she knew him when they dated before he ripped her off), and she’s determined to have her revenge and make him suffer by killing everyone he cares about before she gets around to offing him. The other stalker is her friend Stu Brown (Robert Moloney), though his actual relationship to Sloane isn’t specified and neither is why the hell he’s got so involved in her plot.

In some ways the most interesting character is Martin’s daughter Dana, the one other person besides André who knows Martin is a con artist, seducer and jewel thief, who keeps reminding him that he promised her this was going to be different, that once he moved to this neighborhood he wouldn’t steal but would instead live a normal, above-board life and allow her to finish high school, have friends and maybe even hook up with a potential boyfriend, which she has in Charlie. Naturally she’s afraid of what’s going to happen to her own relationship when Charlie’s mom realizes that Martin is a crook and is just making love to her in order to steal from her — only Dunn makes Martin a morally ambiguous character, too, and keeps us guessing whether he sees Julie as just another victim or is genuinely falling in love with her. This ambiguity made me wonder if Christine Conradt had written this — this kind of complexity is what usually sets Conradt’s scripts apart from and above the Lifetime norm — only Dunn takes it too far: the climax occurs when Martin has summoned Julie to his home, pulling her away from a well-heeled client at the art gallery, to tell her something that’s really important. Meanwhile, Dana has told Charlie that they need to get over to her dad’s even though that means they have to ditch school — only just when Martin is about to spill the beans to Julie, Sloane, the real villainess of the piece, walks in with a silver gun (she’d previously used it to shoot André when he refused to give her back a bracelet Martin had stolen from her after previously giving it to her — it seems this is the same bracelet he uses over and over, giving it to all his victims and then stealing it back — and André went for his own gun instead) and threatens to kill first Julie and then Martin. Martin protests that he doesn’t really love Julie, that she was just another “mark,” hoping that if he can convince Sloane of that she’ll at least let Julie live and just kill him — only Charlie and Dana arrive, they call the police, the cops arrive almost immediately (much sooner than you’d expect them to unless they’d already been staking Martin out), and Martin suffers a flesh wound from Sloane’s gun but will be all right, while Sloane is arrested.

Where the film really goes over the top is after that, when we’re expected to believe that the cops have no idea Martin is a jewel thief (earlier he’s told Dana that he’s hidden his crimes perfectly and so can stop any time he wants to and live off his previous proceeds and send her to college on them, but it’s hard to believe he’s hidden them that well and even harder to believe Sloane, whom they’ve taken alive, won’t tell them), that he and Julie are genuinely in love with each other, and it’s all going to end with the four of them — Martin, Julie, Charlie and Dana — all living together in a bizarre relationship that isn’t literally incestuous but certainly feels that way. (One can imagine Charlie trying to explain this to a show-and-tell session at school: “My stepfather is also my father-in-law!”) Even Christine Conradt didn’t try to pass off something as sick as this as a happy ending; where I thought this would end was that Martin and Sloane would both die in a shoot-out and Julie, realizing that Dana would be left without a dad, would take her in. The weird ending left me with a bad taste after a film that for most of its running time was just mediocre, considerably better acted by the youngsters playing the principals’ kids than the principals themselves, and also beset by the fact that of the four women playing major roles, three — Chandra West as Julie, Cate Sproule as Dana and Lucie Guest as Sloane — look an awful lot like each other. Especially when they confront each other, it’s really hard to tell Chandra West and Lucie Guest apart except Guest has curlier hair. Seduced by a Stranger was hardly the slice of good clean dirty Lifetime fun I was expecting, and director Belyea didn’t give us any of the soft-core porn we expect and hope for in Lifetime movies (especially disappointing given that we have two sexually involved couples in the dramatis personae), though I give writer Dunn points for at least trying to make the characters (some of them, at least) morally complex, even though that bizarre “happy” ending pushed the moral ambiguity too far for me — maybe she saw Martin as a basically good man who’d just fallen into a trap, but I saw him as a no-good rotter who deserved his comeuppance, not a good woman’s hand in marriage!