Although it may have prompted James Franco to reimagine Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, it’s clear, from the very outset, that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Lifetime movie is a very different kind of venture. Where the remake of Mother aimed for revisionist camp, A Deadly Adoption is a Lifetime movie in the most traditional sense, playing as homage more than parody – and indeed only playing as parody inasmuch as Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, who play the two leads, perfectly acclimatise themselves to the Lifetime channel. As the title might suggest, the film revolves around an adoption: five years after an accident that leaves her unable to have any more children, Sarah Benson (Wiig) finally convinces her husband Robert (Ferrell) that they can only save their marriage by adopting a child. After rotating through a number of birth-mothers, they finally settle upon Bridgette Gibson (Jessica Lowndes), who they invite to live with them for the duration of her pregnancy, during which time she starts to form a fixation with Robert, as well as with the Benson’s only child, six-year old Sully (Alyvia Alyn Lind). The stage is set for a quintessential Lifetime narrative about thwarted, twisted motherhood, as well as the plight of those not deemed fit to be mothers, all of which plays out against the backdrop of Robert and Sarah’s own increasingly tumultuous marriage.
With the exception of a brief prologue and epilogue which stretch the hyperbole of the Lifetime aesthetic right to the point of parody, all of this is played with complete sincerity and earnestness. For many critics, that seems to have somewhat compromised the project, but for me this dedication was what made A Deadly Adoption so brilliant and so poised. As I mentioned in my review of the original version of Mother, there is something about the Lifetime look that already pre-empts and defies parody, and to their credit Ferrell and McKay have chosen to work within very strict Lifetime parameters here. That’s a good move, since both both Ferrell and Wiig are brilliant at performing sincerity, authenticity and earnestness, with some of their best comic creations coming from the kind of straight-faced intensity so demanded by their two roles on display here. While that doesn’t quite give the film a parodic edge, it does imbue its sincerity with an offbeat, unsettling quality that both creates a little bit of critical distance from the Lifetime universe but also feels entirely true to it at the same time.
For that reason, many of my favourite scenes in the film simply revolved around Ferrell and Wiig – or Robert and Sarah – as they engage in smalltalk, repartee and polite conversation, since both of them manage to bring an incredible flatness, blankness and tact to every encounter that is all the more unsettling and entrancing for never being permitted to lapse over into parody or comedy. Ferrell, in particular, puts in a performance of enormous restraint, especially given that Robert’s backstory involves a period of prolonged mania – drinking, drug use, promiscuous sex – that has only just started to give way to a proportionate placidity that suffuses every scene with the sense that things are just a little too calm. One of Ferrell’s great comic signatures is his ability to move between mania and placidity in this way, and yet lately he has experimenting with just sticking with one or the other. In Daddy’s Home, for example, he spent the whole film basking in a calmness and patience that always felt as if it was about to burst into one of his trademark freakouts, and while I was disappointed that it never did, I now wonder whether that decision owed something to his work on A Deadly Adoption, since that smouldering, earnest calmness is utterly galvanising here. At the same time, this may be one of Wiig’s best performances as well: along with Bridesmaids and The Skeleton Twins, it’s one of the few roles I’ve seen her take on that really plays to her unusual and distinctive strengths. For me, Wiig is the dramedic actress par excellence – her irreverence always has a serious edge, and her earnestness always has a comic edge – with the result that she tends to thrive best in films where the tone is as protean, ambiguous and as uncanny as it is here.
For all those reasons, then, my ultimate experience of A Deadly Adoption was of delightful and entrancing uncanniness, rather than comedy or parody per se. Certainly, I laughed, but they were often laughs of astonishment or surprise more than at the expense of the Lifetime channel itself, since there is absolutely no parody of the supposed “extravagances” of the Lifetime style on display here: if anything, the film uncannily draws out the way in which Lifetime itself parodies and questions the notions bound up with the patriarchal systems it melodramatises. While we often think of Lifetime in association with gender, it queries whiteness – or a particularly white notion of gender – as well, and it is that heightened and estranged whiteness that so perfectly on display here. For one thing, the setting – Storm Lake – feels like a fusion of every white enclave sketched out by the Lifetime channel – part New England, part Pacific Northwest, part Virginia – while the Bensons’ lake house feels like a blankly, blandly intensified summary of every white picket fantasy I’ve ever seen. However, it is the Bensons themselves who do most of the heavy lifting: he is a financial guru, she is an organic food producer, and their modesty, politeness and tact about their wealth, their desperate efforts to sympathise with anyone who is different, and their studied blandness and blankness follows in a long Lifetime tradition of inhabiting and estranging whiteness from the inside.
As a result, A Deadly Adoption often plays a bit like Ferrell and Wiig coming out as white, a process that has been more and more characteristic of comedy in the last decade. As African-American invisibility has become more and more difficult to ignore, so it has become harder and harder to pretend that white comedians – and white actors generally – are offering anything resembling a universal, general or racially neutral address. While white comedians riffing off – and building upon – the achievements of African-American comedians is nothing new, this recent movement seems more characterised by the way in which it turns this marginalisation of whiteness into the central comic conceit: in effect, being white has become one subcultural option amongst many, with African-American culture coming to feel more omniscient and expansive in terms of America as a whole. Both Ferrell and Wiig have negotiated this in their recent work, although it is perhaps more overt in the case of Ferrell’s collaborations with Kevin Hart in Get Hard and Hannibal Buress in Daddy’s Home; in the first, he was emasculated by African-American virility; in the second, he was emasculated by a particular brand of white bro virility, embodied by Marky Mark and then John Cena, that has arisen in response to precisely the anxieties about the African-American male body that drove Get Hard. In short, Ferrell is brilliant at portraying white masculinity emasculated by the very tools it devises to avoid being emasculated by African-American virility: in his particular brand of mildness, mania and infantile intensity, he is probably the best comedian of his generation to encapsulate the sense that there is really no way out for the universal white male subject that dominated comedy until a decade or so ago, and against which all African-American comedians were inevitably pigeonholed as “African-American comedians.” I happened to see Daddy’s Home at a predominantly African-American cinema in New York – my boyfriend and I were the only white people in the audience and the halls were decorated with Tyler Perry and Wayons Brothers posters – and in many ways it felt as if Ferrell’s screen persona in this particular film were a way of addressing precisely this audience situation and demographic: as one of the two white people, I felt peculiarly addressed by the film’s picket-fence version of suburban fatherhood, but also parodied in the very act of assuming that privileged address as well.
While Wiig’s parodic whiteness – what might be called “minor whiteness” – hasn’t been as emphatic or combative as Ferrell’s, it has arguably been more pervasive over the course of her career, as well as more directly connected to the approach taken by A Deadly Adoption. In almost every role that I have seen her perform, Wiig has perfected a certain kind of insular, slightly awry whiteness – a quintessentially dramedic persona – although it is arguably her guest spots on Fallon that typify this side of her screen self. In these, she “pretends” to be a celebrity of note – Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Daenerys Targaryen – but the joke is always that these are non-impersonations, insofar as she never bothers to do any research and makes up implausible backstories and preposterous character traits on the spot. Even funnier, however, is the way that Wiig always just breezes through it, unphased, even as her adoption of each celebrity becomes ever more suburban, homey and picket-fency – at one point she casually drops that Khaleesi’s real name is Karen – and as she subsumes even the most ridiculous details into the kind of perfectly timed smalltalk and repartee that suffuse her conversations with Ferrell in A Deadly Adoption as well. In that sense, Wiig’s appearances on Fallon subtly parody the way in whiteness is presumed to be malleable enough and expansive enough to adopt any identity and speak to any identity – and if there is a parodic edge to A Deadly Adoption, it revolves around the way in which Wiig, in particular, takes to her role with the earnestness of someone who believes that her actions and situation speak universally on behalf of everyone, just as her character, Sarah, seems to earnestly believe that selling organic fruit and vegetables gives her a common and universal touch that mitigates against the fact of her husband being a consultant to the 1%.
For that reason, some of the very best scenes in A Deadly Adoption take place against the backdrop of Sarah’s organic food stand – or, rather, around the increasingly elastic commute between her lakeside mansion and the food stand. Among other things, it is here that we meet my favourite character in the film, Charlie, played by comedian Bryan Safi, who may be Sarah’s business partner but also falls into the role of her gay best friend. As a gay man myself, I tend to be quite picky as to the representation of queer people on screen: either I find them too stereotypical, or too negative, or too accommodating. Every now and then, though, I come across a cinematic gay man that I find utterly compelling, and Charlie is one of those characters. In part, that’s because Safi and screenwriter Andrew Steele strike a brilliant balance between type and stereotype – although Charlie is flamboyant and somewhat fabulous, he also reminds Robert that he lives in “the same world as straight people.” However, my love for Charlie goes beyond the way he strikes this balance – I found myself loving him for the same reason I usually dislike depictions of flamboyant gayness in mainstream film and television. For the most part, gay flamboyance tends to be reduced to either a comic effect or used as a shorthand for bitchiness and intrigue, whereas I have always found flamboyance to be a will to joy – a will to gay joy – in the face of everything that might seem to mitigate against it. In all the films and television series I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve encountered a character or actor capable of transmitting that joy as perfectly as Charlie and Safi, who seem to fuse over the course of A Deadly Adoption into a reminder as to why queer people embraced the word “gay” in the first place. Against the heightened politeness, tact and courtesy of the Bensons, Safi exudes a joyous, exuberant joie de vie that makes you really feel he enjoyed simply playing the role, just as Charlie seems to enjoy and relish in everything that occurs around him. While gayness is often figured in morbid or morose terms in mainstream cinema and television, I have always found it distinguished by just this openness to delight, and there is something extraordinarily poised about the way in which Safi manages to keep this capacity for joy open throughout even the most harrowing moments of the film. More than even Ferrell or Wiig, he channels his career as a comedian into the most profoundly comic and inclusive vision of gay life, and what gay life can bring to the lives of people who are not gay.
Of course, that makes it all the more tragic when Charlie is shot towards the end – while it’s quite normal for gay men to play the part of collateral damage in this kind of scenario, it hit me particularly hard in this instance, just because Charlie seems to represent the one way out of the film’s placid prison, as well as the one place where whiteness seems as if it might genuinely flourish. Yet while Charlie’s death is tragic, it also inverts the typical formula whereby the single gay character functions as a kind of tragic supplement to the nuclear family as well, since even the restoration of the Benson clan in the final scenes never feels as if it manages to glimpse the deep and abiding joy that Charlie has managed to exude in his brief appearance. While Charlie may be removed, then, it doesn’t make him feel expendable so much as elevates him to a kind of utopian horizon around which the film as a whole coalesces, in one of the most dignified and optimistic visions of queerness that I can recall seeing on any screen. Indeed, so powerful was Safi’s presence that at times it seemed to direct the film away from the Lifetime channel and towards the Hallmark channel, which often seems to play as its more utopian and optimistic twin, especially with the arrival of the first original scripted Hallmark series a couple of years back with Cedar Cove. As a big fan of that show, it inevitably resonated here, but in the end A Deadly Adoption only includes these Hallmark touches to clarify how perfectly and respectfully it lives up to its Lifetime pedigree – a homage rather than a parody, Ferrell and Wiig’s vision and version of melodrama may estrange itself ever so slightly from the Lifetime universe, but only for the sake of allowing us to enjoy and appreciate their forebears with fresh eyes.