When I curate Yakmala programs, there’s usually one film I’m convinced will be a winner. Its baffling idiocy or crushing earnestness will charm the group. Often its quaking need to exist despite serious technical deficiencies will make it earn a spot at our table of champions.
This is the story of a film that I did not expect to rise to the top. This is our first Best of Yakmala inductee for 2015: TalHotBlond.
When Justin embarked on his trek across the landscape of Lifetime movies, I’d already begun a similar journey thanks to one of my many jobs. This particular job lead to a cache of Lifetime DVDs which included such films as On Strike for Christmas, Drew Petersen: Untouchable and The Craigslist Killer. That last film convinced me, with certainty, that I could program an entire Yakmala viewing session around these odd Lifetime flicks. The final program consisted of The Craigslist Killer, its accidental companion film Blue-Eyed Butcher and TalHotBlond.
This particular program, “A Lifetime of Yakmala” is an excellent example in the precarious nature of questionable films and how an audience will react. The Craigslist Killer, despite wonderful tonal whiplash (more on that concept next time), was kind of a dud. Blue-Eyed Butcher, thanks to its terrible court scenes and its ultimate ambiguity toward its subject, may rise to prominence in years to come … but neither can hold a candle to TalHotBlond.
The group immediately fell for its subversion of the Lifetime mold and lost itself in guessing the final twist. To say it engaged the crowd is putting it mildly.
Okay, enough dilly-dally. Based on actual events (and an amazing 2011 documentary by the same name), the film concerns a man in the throws of a cyber-induced mid-life crisis. Working a dead-end job at an abrasives factory and concerned that his daughters get to swim practice on time, Thomas Montgomery’s only outlet is a monthly poker night which his buddies turn into a nightly thing via this new-fangled “Internet” (patent pending). On his first night of online poker, he gets a private message from something calling itself “TalHotBlond.”
Now, most of us have been doing this internet thing since the mid 1990s. We knew about “catfishing” before it had a clever name. We are suspicious by the very nature of the anonymity online realms afford. But Thomas isn’t just an older man, he comes across as a decade out of step. The fact he even understands a private message is kind of astounding … but he takes TalHotBlond as its word that it is female (and from here on out, I’ll use feminine pronouns) and that her screenname is an accurate depiction of herself once she sends a photo as proof. Clearly, Thomas has never been a moderator on OKCupid and flagged an account for pulling all their profile photos off the Google Image Search.
So Thomas immediately turns around and gives her a soft catfish about himself. Using photos from his Marine sniper days, he describes himself as twenty-or-so years younger and ready to ship off to Afghanistan to defend our freedoms to obscure our identities on online poker sites. At no point does he suspect that she might be doing the same thing because Thomas is not smarter than the average sniper.
So things get hotter and heavier as Thomas and TalHotBlond engage in a little cybersex (for you youngsters, this is what we used to call “sexting” before text messaging became the cellphone’s primary function), she sends him some more bikini photos and a pair of her panties. He eventually proposes to her over the phone. During all of this, Thomas also suffers some sort of psychotic break as he begins to believe that he is a twenty-year old, multi-millionaire version of himself.
Which completely shocks his wife Carol when she figures out what’s been going on.
Played by Laura San Giacomo — doing everything in her power to look haggard despite being Laura San Giacomo — Carol does the only sensible thing a wife can do when she finds out her husband has been catfishing some poor girl: reveal the catfish. Oh, and because she actually has a level head, she did it thirty-five minutes ago … much to Thomas’s anguished horror.
I should stop here and actually praise our leads. San Giacomo and star Garret Dillahunt are way better actors than this material deserves. They nearly elevate TalHotBlond into a legitimate film about people with real emotions that’s actually at odds with Lifetime’s more pat simulacrum of human things. By their nature as excellent performers, they betray the film’s stated purpose as a Lifetime film. But more of that anon …
So while Thomas limply (yeah, that’s kind of a pun to stuff I haven’t referenced) tries to put his marriage back together, TalHotBlond starts chatting up his younger, womanizing co-worker Brian. Realizing that his online fantasy is less important than his real life relationship, Thomas lets Brian get into a disturbing deathpact with TalHotBlond which ends with them screaming down the Pacific Coast Highway in a stolen Lamborghini Veneno while Thomas and Carol renew their vows.
Nah, I’m kidding, Thomas goes ape-shit and gets creepily possessive, but the movie is so insane, the other option is completely viable. In the film’s actual reality, Thomas starts harassing Brian and TalHotBlond which leads to the inevitable shocking turn.
But before I get there, it occurs to me that I haven’t adequately described why this movie is so insane. If you’ve ever watched a Lifetime movie, you know they follow certain predictable patterns: A wife (Marcia Cross) discovers her man (Stephen Collins before we learned the ugly truth about him) has seduced an impressionable young girl (Keri Russell before she grew up and became a Soviet sleeper agent), causing the wife to get the harshest revenge the criminal justice system can afford her. And occasionally the man gets a little murdery about the whole thing.
TalHotBlond, despite using some of the tropes, eschews the standard expectations because, even at this point in the flick, we’re not entirely sure who TalHotBlond is. Are Thomas’s poker buddies playing a huge joke on him? Is Brian suffering some sort Tyler Durden multiple personality problem and acting out because of his sublimated homosexuality? About every five minutes, you end up questioning the movie’s assumed basic operating tenants. During the screening, theories got as outlandish as aliens, it was Thomas all along and hyper-intelligent apes. Adrift at sea for most of the film’s running time, anything could be at the other end of the characters’ connection to TalHotBlond.
And then came The Scene.
So a completely unhinged Thomas shoves Brian against a locker room wall he learns his former friend is traveling to Indiana to meet TalHotBlond in the nubile young flesh. He also gets on his computer to chastise the girl for being unfaithful. Yeah, he’s kind of forgetting the whole catfishing thing. So Thomas, careful planner that he is, gets his sniper rifle out of storage and shoots Brian at point blank range. Then he rustles up his own family for a late-night camping trip and … then has sex with his wife.
See, the film is still subverting your expectations. It could have easily become a family annihilation thing instead of Thomas getting his groove back via murder. No, wait, that’s equally repellent … but this also brings us to the pivotal moment. Though I’ve liberally used the term “catfish” in this review — and it was the twist everyone assumed was coming — the exact nature of TalHotBlond’s catfish alluded the stalwart crew of Yakmala veterans. As the cops come to tell TalHotBlond that Brian is dead, we see the girl in the photos answer the door. Hu-wah???? But then an older woman, Beth Brooks, also steps out to see the fuss. She’s played by one of the 1980/90s favorite guest stars, Molly Hagan. Justin, as he mentioned in his review, recognized her immediately. I could not stop myself from saying, “And why would Molly Hagan be playing such a bit part?” But even in spilling the beans to Justin, it didn’t prepare everyone for what we were about to learn.
Because Thomas is bad at everything, the cops immediately arrest him when he returns from camping. They also reveal to him that his TalHotBlond was Beth all along. At this, we finally see the film from her point of view. She took all those sexy photos of her own daughter. She did the cyber-nasty with Thomas and said yes to his marriage proposal. She grabbed a pair of her own daughter’s panties to send to Thomas. She reacts when Thomas’s wife reveals the catfish and she breaks down in tears when the cops tell her Brian is dead.
And so the movie ends with two families shattered, Thomas left alone in the interrogation room while the cops are probably laughing themselves to death in the squad room and an on-screen text reminds us this is based on true events with this final warning: Beth Brooks still has internet access.
TalHotBlond is a legitimate epic of human despair. Despite its best attempts to recast a true-life story even crazier than what we’ve seen into the Lifetime mold, it can’t help but retain an essential insanity that goes way beyond what the Lifetime movie should and can do. And while it fails at its stated format, it succeeds in so many delicious ways. Which, I guess we can attribute to director Courteney Cox.
See, the movie had one last twist for you.