' ' Cinema Romantico: The College Admissions Scandal

Thursday, November 07, 2019

The College Admissions Scandal

No one comes to Lifetime Movies for the production. That’s why the austere lighting of a Starbucks as a sort of stressed out parental clubhouse is no different than the austere lighting of the home of Caroline (Penelope Ann Miller) and Jackson (Robert Moloney) DeVere, which is odd given Caroline’s job as an interior decorator but then we’re not here to play plausibility police. No, Lifetime Movies live and die on their point-of-view, whether aiming for pleasurable trash or a kind of early evening afterschool special. Director Adam Salky, in borrowing myriad real-life details for “The College Admissions Scandal”, seems to be aiming for the latter, even if occasionally his co-lead, Mia Kirshner, seems to be going for the former. Indeed, Salky eschews the prominent celebrity aspects of the factual story to make the parents in question more run-of-the-mill rich, which not only downplays the inherent juiciness of this tabloid fodder but then tries reframing it more as helicopter parenting love gone wrong – at least in the case of the DeVeres. If “The College Admissions Scandal” only superficially nods at its two most famous busted, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, Kirshner at least seems to take Loughlin’s supercilious not guilty plea as motivation; her Bethany Slade is better than you. The way she walks through that Starbucks evokes someone who has been studying Mariah’s “Shake It Off” video.

If the names Huffman and Loughlin are conspicuously absent, “The College Admissions Scandal” officially name checks the scandal’s mastermind, Rick Singer, played by Michael Shanks in a revolving wardrobe of vests and polo shirts, sort of country club scoundrel chic. He’s such a scoundrel that even when the DeVere’s son, Danny (Sam Duke), doesn’t want to participate, Singer has a duplicitous workaround, which Caroline and Danny agree to. Bethany’s daughter Emma (Sarah Dugdale) is more willing to go along with the ruse, though the film remains careful to portray her as less of a spoiled brat and more of someone in need of daughterly de-programming. Given Lifetime budget limitations, the details of this plot are recounted not in some Diet Scorsese montage but out loud, often by phone, where the two smirking FBI agents listen in, scenes so ham-fisted they can’t help but be hilarious. This is an obscure reference, assuredly, but for God’s sake, reader, we’re in the middle of a Lifetime Movie review, and so I realize now, over 20 years later, that in “Wild Things”, when responding to her daughter’s accusations against her teacher of assault, Theresa Russell incredulously asking “Sam Lombardo?” [“lom-BAR-do”] was unintentionally parodying, or maybe just embodying, every phony, “look-the-script-says-I-gotta-spell-this-out” incantation.

The movie opens with Caroline in the company of a small Greek Chorus of other parents fretting over the college aspirations and applications of their respective children. This is literally all they discuss. In fact, we don’t learn that Caroline is an interior decorator until much later, though even then her profession is mostly a throwaway, a means to add some peripheral business to a couple scenes, nothing more. No, Danny’s future is her profession, as it is for Jackson. He’s a lawyer though the only time we see him at work doesn’t involve arguing a case or thumbing through a legal book but celebrating his boss’s son getting into Princeton. Status! Moloney, in fact, hardly looks like a lawyer, giving a performance leaning heavily on his facial stubble and wide eyes born of sleepless nights. He is not playing at the same cacophonous volume as Al Pacino in “Heat”, but Moloney made me think about how Pacino’s bug-eyed insanity was a product of his character doing coke. Except that in the final cut of “Heat” all the scenes of him doing coke were cut, just leaving behind the bug-eyed insanity. I’m telling you, Jackson DeVere is doing coke when the camera isn’t looking. And while that’s not so suggest his son is doing coke, Duke’s performance is eerily like father like son, sweaty and emotionally messy, befitting the wannabe emo singer-songwriter.

If these two are tortured, Bethany is the furthest thing from, as Kirshner sort of channels the haughty energy of Frances Fisher in “Titanic” being evacuated to the lifeboats while simultaneously telling her maid she wants a cup of tea. The movie’s best scene, which is to say the one that best hits the desired Lifetime aesthetic of exaggerated thematic comicality, finds Bethany steamrolling her lawyer’s (Ash Lee) advice so brazenly he looks less like a high-powered attorney than, to quote ID4, “the orphaned child Oliver asking ‘please sir, I’d like some more.’” Lawyers know the law, but the law has no jurisdiction over the lifestyles of the rich & famous.

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