Sunday, September 4, 2016

Backstabbed (Johnson Production Group, Golden Oak Entertainment, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Lifetime “world premiere” movie last night was Backstabbed, which proved to be surprisingly good. It begins on a hilltop overlooking a gorgeous and pristine valley, where a woman is standing and talking on a cell phone to the owner of the land. She’s a real estate agent who’s promising the old woman that she’ll only consider offers for the land that will essentially preserve its rural character. Then another person — whom we don’t see except as an arm holding a baseball bat — comes up behind her and cracks her over the head with it as if swinging for the home-run fences. After that the movie cuts abruptly to a real estate seminar being attended by Shelby Wilson (Brittany Underwood), at which they’re featuring guest lecturer Paulette Bolton (Josie Davis, top-billed), who comes across as a better-looking Donald Trump in drag and decides that, unlike the other students in the class, Shelby has the “right stuff” and offers her an internship with her one-woman real estate firm. Of course, this being a Lifetime movie — frequent Christine Conradt collaborator Doug Campbell directed and, while La Conradt didn’t write the script for this one, the people who did, Bryan Dick (who’s worked on the Whittendale University universe movies for producer Ken Sanders, who’s listed as a producer here as well) and Raul Inglis, followed her formula so well they might have called it The Perfect Realtor — Paulette Bolton isn’t the shining real-estate star she’s made herself out to be. Shelby starts to get intimations of this on her first day at work, when she meets Paulette at a house they’re supposed to be showing and is accosted by Walter (Brad Lee Wind), who looks like a lab experiment to cross-breed Cueball from Dick Tracy and Lex Luthor. He’s an obvious gangster type — we can tell from the tattoo under the back of his neck — and he’s rudely demanding $17,000 he put in one of Paulette’s projects as an investment and she lost. Shelby is so shaken by this that she knocks the box of donuts she bought Paulette to the floor and then has to clean them up, and later on when Paulette’s potential customers arrive, Paulette instructs Shelby to pose as a rival buyer and offer $550,000 for the house. Instead Shelby offers $700,000, and the price scares the young couple who were genuinely interested away. (Had either Paulette or Shelby seen the Marx Brothers’ film The Cocoanuts, they’d have known the risks of the game they were playing: “Up, up, up — I got plenty of numbers.”) Paulette is concerned that Shelby blew the deal, and Shelby is concerned that the other teachers at her real estate class said that sort of thing was at best unethical and at worst illegal — whereupon Paulette gives Shelby the predictable lecture that there are two rules for running a realty business: the ones they teach you in class and the ones that apply in the real world.

Alas, despite her willingness to cut corners Paulette isn’t doing so well: the owner of the building where she has her offices threatens to evict her for not paying her rent, and it turns out there’s a separate room in the building with a big “For Employees Only” sign on the door in which Paulette is living — in violation of the terms of her lease, which requires her to use the premises for office space only. We see her go in there and virtually pray to the great god Success, repeating stale self-help mantras as she gets ready to face the world again. Her great hope for salvation is buying the huge expanse of undeveloped land we saw in the opening scene and turning it into a high-priced gated community; she has no capital, but she’s convinced she can get it from Max Rhymer (Kevin Spirtas), who’s middle-aged but still surprisingly attractive. Max has the requisite millions to invest, but he’s also got a roving dick and the first time he sees Shelby he’s instantly smitten with her and wants Paulette to pimp out Shelby to him as one of the deal points. Shelby is incredibly reluctant to go along with this, not only because she’s horrified at the idea of prostituting herself to make her and Paulette money but because she’s already got a husband, albeit a milquetoast named Grant (Micah Alberti, who appeared in a previous Doug Campbell Lifetime film, Missing at 17, in which he was the sympathetic brother of the heroine who suffered the titular fate — he’s not much of an actor but he’s nice enough on the eyes he doesn’t need to be, and we get a few frustratingly brief glimpses of him shirtless, flashing really nice pecs) who’s working through a temp agency as receptionist at an insurance agent and, being a typical movie male, is nervous (to say the least) about having a wife who’s making more money than he. There’s also the little matter of Shelby not yet having got her realtor’s license, but Paulette fixes that for her: she scores a copy of the state exam and leaks it to Shelby, telling her it’s only a practice test, and it’s not until she goes to the exam room and the test is put in front of her that she realizes Paulette cheated by giving her the real deal. Alas, Shelby is too virtuous and too loyal to Grant to get naked in Max’s Jacuzzi on cue; instead she bolts the place and says she’ll “Uber home” (“Uber” has become one of those bastard verbs, along with “text” and “friend,” thrown up by the Internet!).

Paulette plans to fix that, too; she steals Grant’s appointment book, learns that he’s supposed to meet some work friends at a bar that Friday night, and hires a hooker to accost him, slip a drug in his drink, then drag him back to his place and shoot smartphone photos that will make it look like Grant had an affair with her and fucked her in the marital bed he shares with Shelby. Shelby “accidentally” receives a text of the photos and falls for the trap, dumping Grant for an act or two and seemingly changing her mind about being willing to bed Max for Paulette’s deal — only when the two women go to Max’s place he’s more impressed by Shelby’s idea for the development (parceling it into large estates so rich Hollywood types who think they’re environmentally conscious can live there and still feel close to nature) than by Paulette’s, and the meeting end with Paulette stalking out and Ubering home herself, swearing revenge against Shelby for taking her big deal away from her. Along the way we’ve also seen a grainy black-and-white repeat of the assault on the hilltop with which the movie opened, this time revealing — to no one’s surprise (at least no one who’s seen more than two movies in their life before), it turns out Paulette was the one who clubbed the rival realtor to death with a baseball bat to ace her out of the deal and grab it for herself. Since she’s already killed for this deal — literally — she has no compunction about upping the murder count: when Walter (ya remember Walter?) comes back and demands his $17,000, Paulette, who’s just cleared a commission check from a previous sale to a Gay couple, offers him more money if he’ll off Shelby. Only Walter fucks up, misses Shelby and instead wounds Grant (ya remember Grant?), who figured out the plot and told Shelby to look for the burner phone with which Paulette sent her the pics (which Shelby finds in Paulette’s secret living space next to her office), putting him in the hospital for a while. Paulette rats Shelby out as a cheater to the California Board of Real Estate, but Shelby is able to persuade them absurdly easily that she only inadvertently cheated on the exam. Paulette also kills Walter and fakes the scene to look like suicide.

It all ends when Shelby visits Max to nail down the details of the deal, only to find that Max is still a letch with a, shall we say, personal as well as professional interest in her — and just after she rejects him and gets a wound on her forehead for her pains, Paulette shows up, shoots Max and announces her intent to set up Shelby to take the blame. She drives Shelby to the valley land the whole plot has been about, forcing her at gunpoint to take an overdose of sleeping pills; the idea was to make it look like she shot Max when he wouldn’t take no for an answer, then got disgusted with herself, drove out to the land and killed herself. (The Realtor from Hell really seems big on faking her killings to look like suicide.) Shelby maintains consciousness long enough to get to her car, grab her cell phone and call 911, but she blacks out from the pills before she can tell the 911 operator where she is or what’s wrong. Fortunately, a cop gets a read-out on her GPS and turns up to the isolated site, sees Paulette and apprehends her before she can shoot Shelby (her Plan B). Backstabbed is luridly melodramatic and some of the plot is awfully far-fetched, but within the limits of the overall Lifetime approach it’s also a quite good thriller, with two well-etched and genuinely complex female leads. Though she sometimes comes a bit too close to The Devil Wears Prada, Josie Davis is excellent as the psycho realtor, managing to thread the needle so she seems crazy but not so crazy that anyone seeing her would immediately summon the boys in the white coats, and the writers and director Campbell ably portray her psychopathology as just the American desire for “success” taken to evil and utterly unscrupulous extremes. And though she doesn’t get as much support from the writers as Davis does, Brittany Underwood does a superb job limning Shelby’s ethical conflicts and showing the financial temptation that leads her to follow Paulette — until being pimped out to a not unattractive but still middle-aged guy becomes her final straw. Backstabbed isn’t great cinema by any means, but it’s the sort of reliable entertainment we come to Lifetime for, and done considerably better than the norm for this channel.