Director: Anna Elizabeth James
Stars: Kristin Davis, Greer Grammer, Dermot Mulroney
In 1988 and long before her Sex & the City stardom, Krstin Davis ‘starred’ as one of a handful of colourful teenage victims in campy slasher gem Doom Asylum. Given her success since, its safe to assume that this kooky credit isn’t among Davis’ favourites, but one wonders where she’ll place her latest offering; a far more embarrassing effort than merely taking a buzzsaw to the face all those years ago…
Galloping toward us madly, like a confused and drunken horse that’s bolted from its stable, Anna Elizabeth James’ misguidedly melodramatic thriller is the kind of bad accident that feels kind of remarkable, even as the collateral damage piles up in its wake. The kind its hard not to stare at open-mouthed. Davis stars as cigar-smoking middle-aged novelist Mary Morrison, who has recently been encouraged to take on a ghost-writing gig. This coincides with her decision to take on youthful nanny Grace (Greer Grammer – also a producer). Cue the immediate commencement of some straight-to-video ’90s erotic thriller shenanigans as Mary and Grace become inexorably drawn to one another.
Now, in some circles that’s a mark of disdain. But I’ve recently reconnected with this trashiest of genres, and there are plenty of thrills to be found (both genuine and laced with irony) in cinema’s least-loved waste basket. Deadly Illusions aspires to the same lascivious, dog-eared paperback escapism. And it certainly goes at it with gusto. Soon Grace is coercing Mary into groping her breasts in a shopping mall fitting room. But it all tragically lacks a level of self-awareness that is all-but-essential to excuse much of this kind of openly hollow material in the 21st century. Goaded on by terrible friend, Elaine (Shanola Hampton), Mary engages in a tepid sexual mid-life crisis the doesn’t even barely attempt to hide a stupefying, cliché and borderline offensive twist waiting in the wings. You’ll quickly grow impatient waiting for that penny to drop.
James – who not only takes director credit but also writer and producer (red flag) – elicits nothing but cringe-worthy performances from her stable of actors. Davis and Grammer compete fiercely for the dopiest line readings from James’ still-cold pages, affecting a game of tennis with dialogue too damp to ever truly zing. The match is a stalemate.
But its okay; you don’t have to listen to them all the time! James seems to get bored of her actors even before we do, flipping the volume up and down on them chaotically, so that Deadly Illusions plays like a wayward toddler was left unsupervised at the mixing desk. The intent – one assumes – is to portray confusion or shock, as her characters are stunned into submission by anything from platitudes to stock market revelations. The result is amateur-hour embarrassment.
Speaking of embarrassment, Davis and her co-star Dermot Mulroney rub up and down against one another in a series of charmless and excruciating sex scenes. Sex can be funny, but Davis’ nervous giggles belay an actor regretting her decisions even in the moment. In fact she makes a similar set of sounds when her character steps on a glass. Even so, these are nothing compared to the stilted interactions expected of Davis and Grammer.
By the time its into its second hour, Deadly Illusions has found its footing; that of a serialised tabloid sex dilemma presented in a succession of Getty Images that have improbably grown the ability to walk, talk and bathe in milk and rose petals. Granted, when Mary grows hysterical – swearing in front of the kids! – Davis puts the effort in and those watching for snark will get their giggles. And as for Grammer? Her character turn (on which the entire third act rests) is unfortunately reminiscent of a funny Anna Faris bit from The House Bunny. Not the intention, I’m sure.
Will it achieve a kind of infamy, like The Room? Will groups of chiding Gen Zers throw parties in its honor? Serve nothing but quiche and Bloody Marys or sprout sandwiches (don’t ask)? Unfortunately even this credits Deadly Illusions with more staying power than its possibly capable of. You’re more likely to forget about it while watching it. Lucky for James that’s all you need to secure the interest of Netflix.