I’ve been waiting all quarantine for a movie like this! Sure, most of the films we’ve seen have probably been either old classics or safe/solid features that fit right in the middle of quality. Dangerous Lies, Netflix’s latest feature, isn’t interested in either of those distinctions. Despite the film’s presence on the streaming platform, it has more in common with one of those crazy Lifetime original movies than prestige TV. When the dust settles on the shitshow known as 2020, Dangerous Lies will have likely earned the unintentional comedy award.
The story focuses on Adam and Kate (Jessie T. Usher, Camila Mendes), a young married couple living paycheck to paycheck. Adam is taking college courses, while Katie waits tables. Despite their financial struggles, their passion for each other is overwhelming, as we see in the opening scene where they playfully role-play in public before a rendezvous in their car. But a violent incident at the diner (featuring the most chances a gunman has ever given a clerk to get the money in movie history) prompts Katie to leave the waitress gig, and startup as a caretaker for the wealthy Leonard Wellesley (Elliott Gould).
Leonard takes a liking to Katie, and wants to help her with her financial dilemma. He even gives Adam a job as his gardener. Everything seems to be going well… until seedy characters start showing up at the house, in an attempt to buy it. A sleu of suspicious incidents transpire, drawing the attention of detective Chesler (Sasha Alexander), who finds Katie and Adam’s relationship with Leonard to be troubling. It’s a classic case of the seemingly innocent finding themselves in a situation that makes them look guilty. As a result, Katie has to balance settling her money woes the right way, and placating Adam’s get-rich-quick schemes.
Saying too much more would be spoilerrific, but rest assured you can guess early on that type of story we’re dealing with. This is a film that molds itself as a noir-thriller/morality tale in the vein of Hollywood’s best mysteries, but is way too dumb to justify those comparisons. The characters are mostly buffoons, moving the plot forward with one idiotic blunder after another. The blunder that takes the cake is when a character, suspicious of Katie’s motives, breaks into her home in the middle of the night… to do what is unclear. What was the plan, scold her into admitting guilt? This couldn’t have waited until morning? Needless to say, that person gets appropriate comeuppance.
In addition to the script’s strange choices, the acting is as equally bizarre as it is entertaining. Gould’s performance is the richest in the film. His character is elderly, ill, and neurotic, so any hint of bad acting can be chalked up to his characterization. Nonetheless, he’s the source of like 35% of the film’s unintentional comedy due to his… interesting line delivery. He doesn’t seem to know he’s in a thriller, as if he was a character designed for a comedy starring John Mulaney, but wound up on the wrong set. He strikes the rare, delicate balance of being awful AND fantastic in every scene he’s in. But this weird portrayal could be a result of the script and direction. Other than Mendes and Alexander, whose performances play things safe, no one comes off well here. But that’s partially due to the mechanical writing. At one point, Adam exclaims “If we don’t pay these bills by today, Katie, they’ll be kicking in our door” with the believability of an actor in a high school play. Later, a character asks, AT THE BANK, “that’s what you found? Cash?” What were you expecting to see in the safety deposit box?
But the bad writing extends beyond the dialogue, and into the story itself. The attempted robbery that kicks off much of the film’s events is completely unnecessary. It is crowbarred into the story with poor justification as if it was meant to lead to completely different events in an earlier draft of the script. But considering the events of the story in context, you can drop this aspect completely and still hit all the beats the movie sets out to cover. This speaks to a larger issue, where the movie relies on convoluted storytelling, rather than compelling dramatization. This is what separates the Hitchcock films from the wannabe thrillers.
The characters and dialogue are written in a contrived manner because they’re chess pieces that serve an obvious purpose. This all leads to a “twist” that the movie expects you to be shocked by. But the twist is telegraphed about an hour before the reveal and will likely be guessed by anyone that’s seen a movie before (I would imagine that covers a good chunk of this film’s target audience). Compounding this predictability is how silly the other aspects of the plot are, including the backstory on a tragic incident in the house that comes off more goofy than serious. Meanwhile, Katie and Adam repeatedly stumble upon treasure trove after treasure trove – I’m surprised they didn’t find blocks of gold in the washing machine.
Despite the film’s many flaws, however, I’m kind of glad this exists. We’re definitely in “so bad it’s good” territory, and that’s the type of distraction you need during a pandemic. If I have the choice between competent but dull, or imperfect but entertaining, I will usually choose the latter. For its faults, Dangerous Lies still grabs your attention like one of those sleazy CW shows where the plot has gone off the rails and the acting is all over the place. The fact that it does take itself so seriously, without a hint of irony, is precisely why it’s so funny. Hitchcock this is not, but there will always be a place for dumb-fun little movies like this.