Sunday, May 6, 2018

Framed by My Fiancé (DeInstitutionalized, Lifetime, 2017)

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

I stayed in last night and watched a rerun of a Lifetime movie from November 24, 2017 called Framed by My Fiancé — a name which reinforces my feeling that Lifetime is running out of inspiration and having a harder time finding sorts of relationships that can turn ugly and generate their typical plot lines. Directed by Fred Olen Ray (a name I’ve encountered on previous Lifetime productions) from a script by Stephen Lyons based on an “original” story (quotes definitely merited!) by Suju Abraham and David DeCrane (most of these people are old Lifetime hands but the production company is credited as “DeInstitutionalized,” one word with a capital letter in the middle à la a computer program, which suggests what had happened to the writers just before they came up with this script), Framed by My Fiancé begins with a sequence that promises, if not a great movie, at least a better-than-usual one. Attorney Daniel Hackett (Jason-Shane Scott) is about to be appointed to a state judgeship in a move that could clear his way to run for governor of New York (this is set in Buffalo, which makes me wish Charles had been there with me, if only to clue me in on how much Buffalo has changed since he spent a good chunk of his childhood there) but is warned by Harold Barnes (Gerald Webb, an African-American but one of Barack Obama’s color and bald, so you really have to look hard to realize he’s Black) that the appointment would be canceled if he got involved in a scandal. Then he goes out for a nighttime drive with his live-in girlfriend, nurse Jenny Fisher (Katrina Bowden, top-billed), and the two are involved in an accident when Daniel, who’s driving, gets distracted and slams into a black SUV that had stalled on the road, killing one of the people inside, a politically well-connected contractor named Joseph Langford.

We’d also been given a scene establishing that Joseph and his wife May (Valynn Turkovich) are expecting their first child — and May had a miscarriage the year before (like so many other Lifetime women before her!) and is scared that she won’t be able to carry this baby to full term either. (One wonders if the writing committee intended the names “Joseph” and “May” to evoke comparison with the Biblical Joseph and Mary, who according to Christian myth had big-time help from The Man Upstairs in having their baby.) May’s pregnancy survives the accident but not by much, and after she loses this child too she swears revenge against Jenny for having killed not only her husband but her last chance to be a mother. Jenny finds herself in a Kafka-esque situation in which her boss fires her from her nursing job and her best friend, Rosa Harris (Kara Buckley), is threatened with eviction herself for having taken Jenny in following her moving out of Daniel’s place following the accident. While she was still unconscious, Daniel had concocted a plot to blame her for the accident, moving her from the passenger’s to the driver’s seat and planting her fingerprints on the steering wheel so he could say that she had been driving and therefore he wasn’t to blame for the fatal crash. When she comes to, Daniel is hovering over her, pleading to go along with his “one little lie” and back up his story that she was driving, saying that she’ll probably get just a slap on the wrist since she has no criminal record and she’s “clean” as far as the legal system goes. (The phrase “one little lie” appears so often in the dialogue I wondered if One Little Lie had been the working title of the film — and indeed it would have been a better name for it than Framed by My Fiancé — but the page on it lists no other title.) Instead she finds herself arrested for manslaughter by police detective Logan (Alan Pietruazewski, a rather nondescript milquetoast-looking actor of the “type” Lifetime usually casts as the long-suffering husband) and facing a 20-year prison term because of the political connections of the victim, his wife and Daniel.

Framed by My Fiancé is yet another Lifetime movie that could have been quite good if the writers had only known when to stop — had they focused on Jenny’s Kafka-esque inability to get out of the situation Daniel had pulled all the political strings available to him to get her into, with the implied class critique that some victims are more “equal” than others and you can get into a lot more trouble for killing a 1-percenter than someone farther down the economic food chain, they could have had a fine, entertaining and moving film. Instead the plot takes several melodramatic turns, as Jenny goes to the home of Mia Langford and begs her to stop taking it out on her and making her life miserable and awful. Mia insists that now that her husband and baby-to-be are both dead, the only satisfaction she can still get out of life is exacting revenge against the woman who killed them. Amazingly, Jenny somehow convinces her to ask Daniel about the events, saying that there’s an involuntary “tell” — when he’s lying, Daniel starts tapping a pen uncontrollably — that will give it away if Daniel is giving an untrue account of the event. Mia meets with Daniel, sees him tapping his pen as he lies to her, and instantly changes sides and determines to have her revenge against Daniel instead of Jenny. At one point Mia tells Jenny (in the writing committee’s best line), “Man, I’m glad you’re on my team. Being a vengeful bitch is such a lonely job.” Alas, Daniel soon discovers that Mia has turned against him and responds by going to her house, conking her on the head with a vase and thereby killing her. Then he steals a gun from her home and for a moment I thought he was going to shoot her corpse with it, put it in her hand and thereby try to pass off her death as suicide — especially since the next thing he does after he’s killed her is write something on her computer — but no-o-o-o-o, he just leaves her there and one wonders how he thinks he’s going to get away with it.

The body count rises as Jenny’s friend Rosa — ya remember Jenny’s friend Rosa? — starts tracking Daniel and he confronts her in an alley and strangles her, seemingly to death, though two Law and Order-style guest body-finders stumble on her almost immediately and call 911 in time to get her help and save her life. Director Ray badly botches both scenes of Daniel actually committing murder, or trying to — that cute little bonk on the head seems unlikely to have been serious enough to dispatch Mia (at least Warner Bros. in the Al Jolson vehicle Say It With Songs and the later films The Life of Jimmy Dolan and its remake They Made Me a Criminal handled scenes like this more deftly; the hero’s blow against the villain merely knocked him against a lamppost or an andiron, thereby killing him but rendering the killing merely manslaughter, not murder), while Daniel strangles Rosa so hard for so long it’s nearly impossible to imagine her surviving it. The climax takes place on a train on Buffalo’s trolley system, as Daniel confronts Jenny and tries to kill her — and Detective Logan comes on the scene after the trolley reaches the end of the line and Daniel tells Jenny he intends to shoot her with the Langfords’ gun and tell the cops Jenny killed both Mia and Rosa, then out of guilt committed suicide with the gun she stole from Mia. Logan orders his suspect to get on the ground in order to be handcuffed, Jenny — sure he’s there to arrest her — starts doing so, and then Logan says, “Not you, him.” It also turns out that Daniel had once defended a young Black man accused of shooting a drug dealer by refusing to allow a witness to the crime to testify because the witness was the son of the governor’s aide Harold Barnes (ya remember the governor’s aide Harold Barnes?), he had been on the scene to buy drugs, and by covering up the fact that Barnes’ son was a drug user Daniel put Barnes père in the position of owing him a favor, hence his judicial appointment in the first place. A quite good movie in its first third, Framed by My Fiancé then becomes a virtual encyclopedia of almost everything that can go wrong with a Lifetime movie, including the villain showing a combination of almost supernatural power and willful stupidity. I’ve seen better on this channel — sometimes considerably better, like last Sunday’s “premiere,” Nanny Killer, which they showed last night right after Framed by My Fiancé — and though this isn’t by far the worst film I’ve seen on Lifetime either, it is a rather disappointing one given that it had the potential to be considerably better than it is.