Monday, March 26, 2018

My Husband’s Secret Life, a.k.a. Sleeper (Blue Sky Films, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put Charles through a Lifetime “premiere” movie which the network dated 2018 and showed under the title My Husband’s Secret Life — though in the promos (but not in the actual credits) they rather gave away the “secret” by spelling the “r” in “secret” with a backwards letter to make it look Cyrillic — thereby letting us know that the “secret” was going to turn out to be that he was a Russian spy. Produced by our old friends at Incendo Media, with Jean Bureau listed as both “executive producer” and “producer” (I joked, “Was this movie produced by a hierarchical agency or a chest of drawers?,” and Charles responded, “Both,” referencing the marvelous gag in Mel Brooks’ least-known film, The Twelve Chairs, about the “Bureau of Furniture Not Covered by All the Other Bureaus”), written by Thom Richardson (who on the evidence here is one of those Lifetime scribes who, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, insists on writing at least six impossible things before breakfast) and directed by Philippe Gagnon, My Husband’s Secret Life is a curious mash-up of a typical Lifetime soap opera and a Jason Bourne movie — though obviously Brett Donahue, who plays typical-looking suburban florist Freddy Jones in Richmond, Virginia who’s really Russian “sleeper” agent Sasha Sergeivich Volkov, is hardly Matt Damon in the looks department! He’s easy enough on the eyes to establish to the Lifetime audience that he’ll probably turn out to be a villain even though at the beginning he seems to be the average suburban businessperson (the locale is Richmond, Virginia, obviously chosen by the filmmakers because of its proximity to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia) who as the film opens is with his wife Jennifer, usually addressed as “J. J.” (Kara Killmer, top-billed), getting ready to celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary. 

She’s joking about the “seven-year itch” as they get ready for an anniversary dinner they’ve reserved at an Italian restaurant called Traittoria (I remember being amused in the 1980’s when there was a brief vogue for fancy, upscale Italian restaurants that used the word “Traittoria” in their names — the reason that amused me was that I’d seen enough Italian movies to know that in Italy a “traittoria” is a really cheap eating place, essentially what we call a “diner”), only instead he takes her to his florist shop, where he’s set up a private dining space, including food catered from Traittoria (though all they seem to have to eat is one pizza slice each) and a bottle of champagne. It seems that their marriage has been strained since she lost a baby to a miscarriage (not another Lifetime miscarriage!) — in Kara Killmer’s best acting in the movie she laments first having not told any of their friends that she was going to have a baby, then having to tell them she was going to have a baby but now she isn’t. Then, while out on a lunch date with her neighbor and friend Connie (Mylène Dinh-Robic), J. J. spots Freddy having an argument with another woman, Anna (Ravisa Kondracki), and she assumes the two are having an affair. (Gagnon, Bureau and their casting director — the last uncredited on, which lists this film under its working title, Sleeper — screwed up big-time by casting two women who look so much alike as J. J. and Anna: they’re both tall, leggy blondes and the only reliable way you can tell Kara Killmer and Ravisa Kondracki apart is Kondracki  has a few more waves in her hair.) The truth is even worse than that: Freddy Jones is really Sasha Sergeivich Volkov, one of 500 Russian “sleeper” agents — “sleeper” is spy-speak for an agent sent to another country to live there for months or even years and not to do any espionage until his or her headquarters sends a signal for them to be active — sent to the U.S. to blend in, marry American women, start families and be as inconspicuous as possible until the day came when their country needed them as spies. 

This plot was worked out by Sasha’s father, Sergei Volkov, back in the days of the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) when Russia’s spy service was called the KGB (it’s currently the FSB), and he was so concerned about keeping it secret that he never gave anyone at the KGB the list of who and where the sleeper agents were. He kept that info to himself, passing it on only to his son, so now that he’s dead “sleeper” Sasha, a.k.a. Richmond florist Freddy, is the only one who has it and the current Russian spymasters want it. So does the FBI; it turns out J. J.’s friend Connie (ya remember J. J.’s friend Connie?) is really an FBI agent staking out the Joneses and waiting for him to do something operational or make a mistake so they can bust him and get him to give them the list. The plot unravels when Arthur Stern (Joe Cobden), founder of a company called Sternet which Freddy has been pumping for secret information of use to his Russian bosses (and which he’s apparently extracted from Stern by blackmailing him rather than paying him, though just what Freddy has on Stern is kept ambiguous), snaps and stops supplying Freddy with information. What’s more, he tries to kill Freddy outside his house by running him down with a car, and J. J. determines to trace this strange person and find out just why he tried to kill her husband. Freddy survives the accident but spends the next two days in a coma, during which time his formidable mother Barbara (Barbara Gordon) shows up — and so does Anna, whom Barbara (who unbeknownst to us until a few reels later is Freddy’s Russian control agent, not really his mother) assigns at first to kill Freddy, later to capture him and take him back to Moscow so he can be debriefed and the FSB can get the list of agents. J. J. looks through old boxes in a secret basement and discovers photos from Freddy’s boyhood in Russia (earlier we’d seen Freddy burn a sepia-toned photo of himself as a boy with his real mother, standing in front of a tacky-looking car that resembles an early-1960’s Ford Falcon but is probably a Soviet knockoff), and eventually she confronts him and he admits everything, though he also insists that after having lived so long in the U.S. and married an American woman he’s genuinely in love with, he doesn’t want to go back to Moscow to get debriefed (and likely tortured and/or killed) by the FSB. 

J. J. convinces him that the only way he can get out of his situation alive is to turn himself in to the FBI, and he does so, though Connie works out a scenario which involves J. J. turning on her husband in a fit of rage and shooting him dead while Anna and Barbara watch. Of course this is a setup — the bullets are real but Freddy is wearing Kevlar, so he survives, Anna and Barbara get arrested and Freddy turns over the list of agents to the U.S. At the end he and J. J. are reunited, presumably for a new life together in witness protection. Oh, and did I mention that J. J. gets pregnant in the middle of all this, though since she had a miscarriage in the backstory there’s no guarantee that the baby will be born — though that’s obviously what we’re meant to think at the end. My Husband’s Secret Life is a movie that chokes on its own preposterousness; the story is so dependent on dorky plot twists and the most unbelievable thing about it (despite the formidable competition) is the whole idea that J. J. could have been with this man for seven years without any idea he was really a Russian spy, only to have his carefully constructed cover fall apart in a day or two. It’s decently directed by Gagnon, who has a flair for the kind of suspense and action the plot requires — one could readily imagine him helming a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie — but the acting is fair-to-middling, and in Barbara Gordon’s case worse than that: it’s all too clear that, despite a striking screen presence, she really has no clue how to portray the sort of dragon lady she’s supposed to be playing (and which Lotte Lenya managed superbly in the second James Bond movie, From Russia with Love). All in all My Husband’s Secret Life (as opposed to My Husband’s Secret, a 2006 documentary about three women and what they went through when their husbands came out to them as Gay) is a nice-looking guy and two nice-looking women and some good visual atmospherics dressing up one of the most ridiculous stories ever conceived by the mindlessness of man — or at least the mindlessness of Thom Richardson!