Uh oh! You’ve stumbled upon Exploitation on the Airwaves, a monthly exploration of the wholesome modern-day grindhouse that is Lifetime original movies. Surprise! Turns our exploitation films have been hiding in plain sight. Today we’re tickling our funnybones with the hilarious story of . . . a deadly adoption?
A title can’t get more classic Lifetime than A Deadly Adoption. The channel devoted to churning out modern day exploitation thrillers has long been obsessed with peppering their film titles with words like “Killer,” “Stalked,” and “Nightmare.” But of all their go-to adjectives, “Deadly” might be their most ubiquitous.
There’s Deadly Shores, a sort of Du Maurier-inspired story of a woman discovering secrets about her new husband. There’s also Deadly Transaction, which follows two teens as their counterfeit money scheme turns lethal. And no B-movie fan should forget the tragic events at the center of Her Deadly Sugar Daddy. Deadly Ex. Deadly Assistant. Deadly Double Cross. The list of mortal encounters goes on and on. So it’s easy to see how a movie titled A Deadly Adoption could get lost in the mix, written off as just another low budget thrill ride made for passing the time.
The thing is A Deadly Adoption is exactly what you’d expect from a Lifetime movie that name: tragic loss, family strife, kidnapping, and evil women. What is unexpected is who stars, who directs, and why.
On April 1st, 2015, The Hollywood Reporter announced that comedy superstars Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig would be starring in a new film for Lifetime. Described as a “contemporary wink” at the genre, most outlets assumed that the Saturday Night Live alums were up to their usual tricks—putting their comedic spin on the everyday. After all, by the mid-2010s the duo had already tackled everything from news anchors to bridesmaids, so a deadly adoption was almost a logical next step. But when the movie aired on June 20th of that year, viewers got something totally unexpected: a completely traditional Lifetime thriller with nary a joke in sight.
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“[…] A Deadly Adoption is exactly what you’d expect from a Lifetime movie that name[…] What is unexpected is who stars, who directs, and why.”
A Deadly Adoption sets the scene at a humble backyard barbecue. Robert Benson (Will Ferrell) entertains his guests as they celebrate his daughter’s first birthday. With his book hitting the bestselling charts and a new baby on the way, Robert’s life is just about perfect. But all that changes when his wife Sarah (Kristen Wiig) has a fatal accident. While standing on the rickety dock at the edge of their property, Sarah leans too heavily on the rotting wood causing the railing to give way. As the party guests look on in horror, she plunges into water, hitting her head on the nearby boat on the way down. Robert immediately dives in after her, but even though he’s able to rescue his wife, the six-month-old baby she’s carrying is lost.
The opening sequence unfolds with all of the melodrama Lifetime movie fans have come to expect. But the promise of parody is suspiciously absent. Instead of playing up the absurdity, director Rachel Lee Goldberg guides her stars to lean into the standard Lifetime style. Sarah’s fall off the dock is conveyed through portentous close ups of the creaking wood interspersed between shots of the happy wife demanding a spin in the boat and her cheerful husband chiding her to return to the party. Then, when disaster finally hits, it’s shown in glorious slow motion, as Sarah tumbles backward toward sudden doom.
What’s important to understand here is that while these events may seem silly to the general film fan, they’re well-tred tropes for Lifetime fans. As the opening sequence unfolds, it becomes clear that rather than the send up they were promised, viewers were in for a dyed-in-the-wool cable thriller. As Kate Erbland wrote in her Vanity Fair review, “Within two minutes, it’s clear: the joke of A Deadly Adoption isn’t that it’s a joke, it’s that it’s not.”
Five years later, the Benson family has formed an uneasy truce with their trauma. Sarah’s focusing her energies on running her organic farm stand, while the newly sober Robert works on a new book. And yet, even though things seem fine on the surface, the loss of their second child weighs heavily on the household. In an attempt to ease the pain, the couple have applied to adopt, but for one reason or another every candidate they’ve met just seems wrong—until they meet Bridgette (Jessica Lowndes), that is.
From the moment Bridgette enters the house, everything about her seems perfect. She’s young, she’s beautiful, and she loves children. The only issue is that she lives in a shelter and can’t get nearly the rest an expecting woman needs. Of course, Robert knows just what to do, and before the younger woman leaves, he offers to let her stay in the Benson home. Unfortunately for the Benson’s, Bridgette isn’t who she seems. And what appears to be an ideal situation is about to take a turn for the, well, deadly.
Critics and audiences alike were left scratching their heads after A Deadly Adoption’s premiere. “So with apologies to all concerned,” wrote Variety’s Brian Lowry, “what on Earth was the point of that?” While Joshua Alston at A/V Club was a little more generous saying, “Adoption is a fun oddity instead of the minor cultural moment it could have been.” What exactly was the goal of this little project? To understand that, we have to look at the motivations behind its creation and dive into a new phenomenon in B-movies: genre tourism.
“The opening sequence unfolds with all of the melodrama Lifetime movie fans have come to expect. But the promise of parody is suspiciously absent. “
It’s important to note that A Deadly Adoption was all Will Ferrell’s idea. “I kept thinking it would be fun to star in a Lifetime movie,” he told Deadline.“ “I was thinking, ‘Oh that would be great to put myself in the middle of one and play it totally straight, maybe put another comedian in it.” To turn this dream into reality, Ferrell turned to director Rachel Lee Goldberg. Goldberg, who claims she was discovered by Ferrell, started her career with the B-movie company The Asylum before singing on as a director with Funny or Die. Along the way, Goldberg also picked up work directing made-for-TV fare like Love at the Christmas Table and Escape from Polygamy, making her uniquely qualified to take on a project like A Deadly Adoption.
Soon, the duo were hard at work on their secret project, securing Wiig as co-star and Andrew Steele as screenwriter. The idea, it seems, was for the project to simply drop on the Lifetime channel without any fanfare. The humor was never meant to come from the content of the film but rather from the fact that the film existed at all. This was a TV movie that was meant to be stumbled upon, but unfortunately news of A Deadly Adoption leaked just a few months before it was meant to air.
With the surprise seemingly dead in the water, Ferrell released a statement pulling the plug on the whole endeavor. “We are deeply disappointed that our planned top-secret project was made public. Kristen and I have decided it is in the best interest for everyone to forgo the project entirely, and we thank Lifetime and all the people who were ready to help us make this film.” What happened in those months between the movie’s cancellation and its subsequent premiere are anybody’s guess, but the release of A Deadly Adoption is an important milestone in the ever-changing world of modern exploitation film.
Since the birth of exploitation, one of the genre’s defining features has been its outsider status. These are movies that indulge in topics mainstream films avoid. They are pictures made cheaply with equipment and talent that often matches the price tag. And while some actors are proud of their B-movie status, traditionally speaking, Hollywood’s biggest stars wouldn’t be caught dead on grimy 16 mm or its digital counterparts. Even in the postmodern 21st century it’s hard to imagine Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Anderson signing on as the lead in Stalked By My Husband’s Ex or Pool Boy Nightmare.
“With their choice to make a dead-serious Lifetime movie, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig gave Hollywood permission to let down their hair and test their limits.”
And yet, the assumption that celebrities are “above” B-movies is beginning to evolve. In the last decade, A-List faces have started popping up in Lifetime projects in what can only be described as genre tourism. Actors who would have previously avoided the channel’s class of film are now seeing the potential in Lifetime’s formula. In Flowers in the Attic, Ellen Burstyn and Heather Graham had the chance to play up the villainy as an evil matriarch and her progeny. While James Franco cosplayed a fatherly side in High School Lover. The movieverse is a vast place filled with thousands of stories, but no matter how diverse the potential, mainstream acting generally sticks to a similar style. With genre tourism, celebrities get the chance to throw caution to the wind and indulge their theatrical whims, whatever they may be. Simply put, taking a detour into the world of exploitation is a free ticket to go big and not get sent home.
While not completely successful, A Deadly Adoption paved the way for modern-day genre tourism. With their choice to make a dead-serious Lifetime movie, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig gave Hollywood permission to let down their hair and test their limits. Sure, A Deadly Adoption might have been light on jokes, but it opened the door for others to see just what the channel has to offer. And what it offers is fun.