For 30 years, Lifetime has been making predictable movies about women in peril, marriages on the skids, and adorable children in danger. These competently produced but uninspired films usually feature familiar faces from TV and provide disposable diversion for the channel’s core female audience.
Saturday night, Lifetime paid homage to that history while simultaneously mocking it with a delightfully bizarre inside joke.
A DEADLY ADOPTION follows the Lifetime blueprint, but with a surprising twist: Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, two icons of contemporary comedy, play the lead characters. Ferrell is Robert Benson, a recovering alcoholic and author of self help books. Wiig is his wife Sarah, a stay-at-home mom who operates a baked goods stand at a local farmer’s market, selling sugar free treats concocted for their diabetic daughter Sully (Alyvia Alyn Lind).
All is ostensibly well until the Bensons decide to take in pregnant, unmarried Bridget (Jessica Lowndes). Sarah, as we learn in the film’s prologue, is unable to conceive after a tragic accident, and the couple hopes to heal by adopting the baby Bridget can’t afford to keep. Bridget has other ideas, of course, and with the help of her tattooed grifter boyfriend Dwayne (Jake Weary) she turns the Benson’s seemingly idyllic life into a bloody nightmare.
When the existence of A DEADLY ADOPTION was first revealed earlier this year, the film’s pedigree – two Saturday Night Live vets and a writer (Andrew Steele) best known for farce (he also wrote SNL) – led to assumptions it would be a parody. But Lifetime didn’t promote it that way, nor did they offer much explanation for why two huge movie stars were playing roles that in past decades would have gone to Ed Marinaro and Tracey Gold.
Taken strictly at face value, A DEADLY ADOPTION is not funny. This seems to have been a disappointment to critics and audience members who believed they were owed the sort of broad antics Ferrell and Wiig routinely deliver on movie screens. But what’s most brilliant about the film is the very thing for which people are condemning it: it’s not obvious. And more importantly it’s not jokey, because Lifetime Original Movies are not jokey.
If parody is exaggeration for comedic effect, A DEADLY ADOPTION succeeds because it distills the art form to its essence, heightens each trope, and delivers an enjoyably metatextual deconstruction, while simultaneously being the thing it is deconstructing. More simply: A DEADLY ADOPTION isn’t (just) a parody of a Lifetime Original Movie, it is a Lifetime Original Movie. Only more so, and with Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig.
Ferrell and Wiig don’t wink at the audience even once, playing exactly the sort of bland, khaki-clad yuppies you’d expect. (Ferrell’s wiry comb-over and close-cropped beard are themselves worthy of Emmys.) Lowndes is appropriately hammy as the batshit crazy pregnant girl, delivering expected howlers like “I’m your new mommy!” with bug-eyed glee. And Bryan Safi is great as Wiig’s seemingly gay co-worker, who communicates his character entirely through coding (perhaps as an homage/indictment to a past when gay characters on Lifetime, or TV in general, could’t be obviously out).
Steele fills the script with unnatural expository dialogue and hackneyed set pieces, managing to squeeze in one laugh-out-loud line – “You know the dangers of diabetic Ketoacidosis!” – while still remaining true to the characters. And director Rachel Goldenberg uses every trick in the cheesy book, including cutting to a distant wide shot as a major character is murdered, with a sound effect of flapping birds filling the morbid silence. The climatic sequence in which she allows multiple characters to run around with life-threatening gunshot wounds harkens back to the bloodless fakery of classic film noir and is alone worth the price of admission (which was free, but you get my point).
As with great mockumentaries like ZELIG (1983) or THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984), A DEADLY ADOPTION likely confused viewers who didn’t know if it was serious or a joke. Let me clear it up for you: it’s both. My girlfriend, a regular viewer of the Lifetime Movie Channel, got caught up in the plot, yelling things at the screen and predicting story points as she would with any other Lifetime Original. She reveled in the obvious, even though she was totally in on the joke. I enjoyed the remarkable subtly, shocked that the network who brought us Lindsay Lohan in LIZ AND DICK was committing this fully to an experimental joke very few might get.
And if you’re wondering why Lifetime decided to blow up their own brand after three decades, just look at all the attention A DEADLY ADOPTION has generated. They attracted eyeballs that have likely never been there before (mine included) and, in the process, promoted buzz-worthy new shows like Unreal (which I sampled after the movie and recommend). Nowadays you have to throw bombs to get attention, and A DEADLY ADOPTION may be just the sort of so-bad-it’s-good bomb Lifetime needed.