The notion of a direct-to-video flick costarring Mena Suvari as a money-hungry, social-climbing stripper might sound like cause for the eager rubbing together of palms by many a shoe-gazing twentysomething who came of age (in perhaps more ways than one) with American Beauty, but Lifetime tele-drama Sex & Lies in Sin City generally fails to ignite or engage either dirty or more casually inquisitive minds. A murder mystery based on a true story, the film contains all the requisite, tabloid-ready staples of such dramas — adultery, theft, familial in-fighting and the like — but it’s so haphazardly assembled and poorly acted as to totally drain it of any lascivious punch.
Reckless, drug-addled casino executive Ted Binion (Matthew Modine, seemingly impersonating Yosemite Sam or some other cartoon character) is a businessman who perpetually lives on the edge, but in Las Vegas that hardly makes him remarkable. High school dropout and beauty queen turned stripper Sandy Murphy (Suvari) wins his heart by initially refusing his drunken solicitations, and soon Sandy’s moved in with him, which only further enrages Ted’s estranged sister, Becky (Marcia Gay Harden). When Ted turns up dead, the victim of an apparent overdose, Becky doesn’t believe the diagnosis (“Overdose my fat Aunt Fanny,” are her exact words, I believe), and pushes for a police investigation. Hanging around at the fringes of the story, meanwhile, is Rick Tabish (Johnathon Schaech), a contractor who’s helping Ted build a safe for his precious stash of gold coins and other valuables — and an ex-con who also happens to be Sandy’s former (and perhaps still current) boyfriend. When Rick gets pinched for Ted’s murder, it pulls both Sandy and Becky into a media maelstrom involving not one but two media-circus trials.
Originally broadcast on Lifetime in October 2008, Sex & Lies in Sin City is adapted by Teena Booth from Jeff German’s book Murder in Sin City, though the title change is somewhat amusing, as there’s certainly no prurient additions to the material; to the contrary, if anything the movie feels like too timid a rendering of a seedy Southwestern story. Booth and director Peter Medak, perhaps owing to the source material, invest far too heavily in the legal maneuvering and the third-act skulking about of a reporter, Evan James (Arron Shiver), to the detriment of any real psychological insights to the characters of Sandy and Rick. Copious affected, black-and-white flashbacks substitute for meaningful drama; the performances, meanwhile, range from over-the-top (Modine) and shrewish (Harden) to more subdued and naturalistic (Schaech), which creates a tonal disharmony that can never be resolved.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Sex & Lies in Sin City comes presented in a completely adequate 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with an English language 5.1 Dolby digital audio track and optional English and Spanish subtitles. There are, alas, no supplemental features. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. D (Movie) D (Disc)