I know Lifetime movies and by all indications A Deadly Adoption is the Lifetime movie. Seriously, it is the prototypical Lifetime movie. It has the wacky title, the preposterous plot supposedly based on a true story and artless dialogue that leaves no room for ambiguity. Basically, the TV adaptation of a trashy romance novel, albeit with a little less sex. I am also familiar with the past projects of the TV movie’s principal actors, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, who together have played a part in some of the most culturally entrenched comedic films of the 21st century like Anchorman, Zoolander, Bridesmaids and Despicable Me to name a few.
If movies featuring Ferrell/Wiig and Lifetime movies were a Venn diagram there would be no overlap. Then what gives for this movie? Are Ferrell and Wiig trying to bolster burgeoning dramatic film careers? Trying to make some extra cash between projects? Or is this all an elaborate joke? For a channel so unused to subtlety A Deadly Adoption more than delivers conceptually in that department even if the final product is still a plodding bore.
The first few minutes suggest little out of the ordinary for a Lifetime movie. A cheap pop tune scores a family party by the lake where Robert Benson (Will Ferrell) drops a load of expository information all in the first minute. He informs us that a) he is a famous, bestselling author of financial books b) his infant daughter’s name is (the traditionally male name) Sully c) his friends follow his vague financial advice without fail d) the dock his wife is standing on is rotten. The jokes in the opening segment and throughout are wooden and the dialogue stilted without any of the trademark silliness to be expected from Ferrell. And then not even five minutes in tragedy strikes with Sarah Benson (Kristen Wiig) falling from that rotten dock – in slow motion – into the water.
Fastforward to five years in the future and in comes Bridget (Jessica Lowndes) in an angelic white dress who quickly negotiates to give up her baby to the couple now that Sarah can’t have children. A hyperbolic story evolves where Bridget turns out to be a crazy groupie who slept with a drunken Robert on a book tour and has become obsessed with him. The plot really isn’t important, largely because it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the moments where everyone gets shot and a child gets kidnapped that make the movie Lifetime-worthy. Still the film progresses, or progresses isn’t the right word, the film continues, following so closely to the Lifetime formula as to be predictable without being quite egregious enough to hatewatch. Shouldn’t comedic kingpins understand how to do comedy, especially with such an easy target as Lifetime?
What if I told you that Andrew Steele, former head writer of SNL and creator of past Wiig and Ferrell collaboration Spoils of Babylon, wrote this television movie? Spoils of Babylon was a miniseries on IFC that satirized the epic television miniseries of yore featuring an absurd plot and a star-studded cast. The satire in that project was clear; for example, the main character marries a woman played by a mannequin, but I believe that A Deadly Adoption is a satire as well, and perhaps the perfect satire for 2015 in that it embodies irony so much that only the discerning viewer in the know could differentiate it from the real thing. In line with Lifetime’s logo update, the network announced a new direction intending to shift them from being the butt of jokes to producing acclaimed material, such as the Emmy-nominated Steel Magnolias remake with an all-black cast that. A Deadly Adoption is likely not a misfire, but rather an exceptionally savvy satire employing all of the cheap tricks of Lifetime with the comedic mastery of a former SNL head writer and two former SNL actors.
Now the exceptionally strange plot holes and odd bits of dialogue finally add up with this new information. Sarah Benson’s insistence on taking the boat out in the beginning of the movie despite hosting a party and standing on a dock she must know to be unsafe is not just a glaring plot hole, it’s a subtle joke. When Bridget mentions her concern for the health of her fetus while living in a homeless shelter and Robert sincerely responds, “how so?” he isn’t just being obtuse, it’s a jab at silly Lifetime dialogue.
To be sure, A Deadly Adoption is still tiresome, neither absurd enough to identify as a traditional satire or creatively distinct enough to add dimension to the formula, but now we can see that the creators did all of this purposefully. A Deadly Adoption’s use of high key lighting, an overwrought score, bland cinematography and stilted writing all employ Lifetime’s vocabulary as a sort of subversive comedy. Here the TV movie’s form is the comedy as opposed to the content, suggesting the bleeding of art cinema’s aims into the realm of Lifetime. I suppose it had to happen at some point. I can’t say I enjoyed watching this movie, but I respect both the network and the cast and crew for having the gall to make it without anyone involved letting the public in on the joke.