“Deadly Illusions,” now available on Netflix, is often unintentionally funny, frequently head-scratching, and worst of all, disappointing — not because it isn’t better, but because it isn’t worse.
Mary Morrison (Kristin Davis) is a bestselling crime novelist, but she has not written much lately — and she doesn’t really have to. She lives a picture-perfect life in a fabulous house with her handsome husband Tom (Dermot Mulroney) and their two nondescript kids.
When she gets an offer from her publisher Kioki (Shaun Wu) to write another installment in her series, she balks. His assistant Darlene (Abella Bala) presumptuously dresses the author down, remarking about Mary’s privilege — her home, her kids’ school, and her royalty checks. Mary, to her credit, responds, “You know nothing about me. You don’t know what you’re talking about, and you should be fired!” It’s a terrific moment of feisty female empowerment. And “Deadly Illusions” even gives Mary a butch quirk; she smokes a number of cigars. But then the plot kicks in, and things go south fast.
When Tom returns home, he finds Kioki’s offer and, after sexually pleasuring his wife, tells Mary to take it. They need the money, he confesses, because he lost “nearly half of their reserve” (are they living on wines?) six months ago. (Tom’s job is vague). In order to write, Mary can’t care for the kids, so she is encouraged by her sassy best friend Elaine (Shanola Hampton) to hire a nanny. After visiting a nanny agency, Mary meets with a handful of awful prospects in a tiresome montage.
Then Grace (Greer Grammer) walks in. Mary assumes she is from the agency, and Grace doesn’t disabuse her. Mary also likes that Grace reads — and Grace discovers Mary is a writer. (Mary’s book features the author photo and bio on the inside front flap of the dust jacket — something most publishers would put on the back flap, which shows how lazy and wrongheaded this film is, but never mind).
Soon Grace is proving herself an asset around the house and becoming a muse for Mary’s writer’s block. A strange scene has Grace borrowing a one-piece bathing suit from Mary, which Elaine remarks makes her look like she’s from an issue of “Playboy.” Mary insists she has nothing to worry about, though Grace exits the pool in slow-motion right out of a sex fantasy. The entire scene is ridiculous. Mary and Elaine are washing windows(?!) while Grace plays with the kids, and the soundtrack is like the overture from a 1950s musical. It is downright bizarre. Later, when Grace gives the kids a shower, things border on creepy.
However, “Deadly Illusions” does not really know what tone to strike, which can be part of the fun/problem. When Mary cuts her foot one morning, Grace attends to it, and Mary, looking down Grace’s blouse, insists they play hooky and go bra shopping. However inappropriate it is to help your nanny buy a bra, it is probably more inappropriate for Grace to put Mary’s hand on her breast. But Mary is, well, titillated by this, and soon starts observing Grace and having erotic fantasies about her. Is it an illusion? And does it matter? Mary tells Elaine that Grace is, “like a master seductress, and I’m her lapdog waiting for my next treat.” It would be funny if it wasn’t so strange.
But Mary insists, “Strange things happen when I write.” She asks Grace to put lotion on her back while she’s sunbathing topless, and then coaxes Grace into the pool after disrobing completely. They drink and dance after, acting more like teenagers than boss and employee. Later Mary dreams a man is pleasuring her, but it may, in fact, be Grace. Grace also massages Mary’s back as Mary bathes, then fondles Mary’s nether regions under the rose petal-filled water. Is it all an illusion? Does it matter?
“Deadly Illusions” gets downright cringe-inducing when Grace and Tom go out for a meal and order quiche. There’s a possible seduction there. Or when Mary and Grace bike for a picnic and Grace’s hand caresses Mary’s leg as she reads to her, culminating in a kiss. Is it all an illusion? Does it matter? Things get more awkward when Mary and Grace are in the kitchen and Grace may be performing oral sex on her. Mary also envisions Tom performing oral sex on Grace. Again, Is it all an illusion? Does it matter?
All this build up is one long, slow burn to the expected twist that someone is not who they say they are. There is a murder, and an obvious reference to “Psycho.” There is a scene of a knife-wielding character coming after Tom, who has just gotten out of the shower — another blatant “Psycho” reference. But this moment yields the film’s best dialogue: Tom asks, “Are you insane?” The knife-wielding character replies, “I’m completely insane!”
Yes, “Deadly Illusions” is completely insane, but it is not bonkers in a good way. It features lousy dialogue, leaden pacing, and terrible acting. Davis is far too chipper even when she has an angry outburst at the dinner table. It is hard to take her seriously. Grammer, in contrast, is trying far too hard to act innocent. She is rarely appealing and hardly seductive — and Mulroney is especially wooden: When talking to his wife, he is unable to sell the line, “You’re my world!” If the actors had camped it up, this could have been a ripe piece of cheese.
But director Anna Elizabeth James has no clear vision here. “Deadly Illusions” could have been a trash-terpiece. Instead, it doesn’t really matter.
“Deadly Illusions” | Directed by Anna Elizabeth James | Streaming on Netflix.
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