If it ever occurred to you, while watching Sex and the City, to wonder what Charlotte might be like had she married Dermot Mulroney, become a best-selling mystery writer, and started smoking cigars, have I got a movie for you. With no offense intended toward either Dermot Mulroney (rom-com legend) or Kristin Davis (who feigned pooping herself to make the first SATC movie work), Deadly Illusions, their new semi-erotic barely-thriller, is incomprehensible, entrancingly awful, and available now on Netflix. I recommend it for one mood and one mood only, which is morbid curiosity. To paraphrase a popular podcast, it’s amazing this thing got made.
Central to my experience, and likely a necessary prerequisite, is a certain degree of inebriation. In my case, I had one of what I call my “fun gummies,” as opposed to my “chill gummies,” which do hardly anything except put me to sleep. Other reviews have called this movie boring, and they’re not wrong. It has a 13 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. It is badly acted, badly directed, badly written, and badly designed. (Davis’s Mary Morrison lives in a mansion that seems to have three or four backyards, but the jet-black kitchen is, like, maybe eight by eight. Why?) If you can put all that aside for just a second, you can absorb the movie as a series of choices, as in: It was a choice someone made to have Davis’s new nanny, Grace (played by Kelsey Grammer’s daughter Greer), pour a pitcher of milk into her newish boss’s bath and then feed her a spoonful of honey.
But let me back up — spoilers ahead, though I hesitate to call them that because nothing I say can prepare you for the way in which these events unfold on screen.
The movie begins with Mary Morrison’s publishers hounding her to write a follow-up to her best-selling mystery series as Mary inexplicably resists, claiming that the writing process turns her into a different person. She says this so many times, so cryptically, that you might reasonably expect her to become a werewolf or something, but what she means is that she becomes so absorbed in her own size-48 font handwritten new book that she starts thinking it’s real. To write the new book, she hires Grace to watch her kids (who don’t otherwise matter to the movie and have next to no lines). Grace soon becomes a character in Mary’s book, the source of the protagonist’s shocking gay lust. Mary, too, begins to lust after the nanny, telling Grace (whose braided hair and girlish wardrobe seem intended to make her appear 17 years old, max) that she reminds Mary of herself — famously the source of all lesbian attraction.
How and why Mary and Grace begin fucking remains unclear to me. I know only that Grace begins rubbing Mary’s arms while Mary’s in the bath, and that the situation then escalates to a sex scene I find implausible for a number of reasons (nondominant hand usage and underwater frictionlessness among them). I know that, later, Grace will go down on Mary in the kitchen, and that when she pops up, nearly caught, she will be depicted removing a pubic hair from her mouth (talk about a CHOICE!). This, presumably, is not meant to be funny, but so much in this movie is funny without wanting to be.
Grace also attempts to seduce Dermot (Tom), around whom she acts entirely differently, largely by wearing a loose sweater that exposes her midriff. One night Mary awakens to hear them having sex in the weird kitchen; she watches from a darkened corner as Tom goes down on Grace while Grace wields a knife. When she accuses Tom and Grace the next day, both deny it. Here, we’re supposed to start wondering if Mary only believes she has seen what she’d written in her book. Are they lying, or is Mary an unreliable narrator?
Well, so. The answer to most multiple-choice questions provoked by this movie is “all of the above, plus some wild stuff you didn’t think of.” Mary’s best friend, Elaine, tries to warn Mary about Grace (she also thinks the nanny is having an affair with Tom), and when Mary discovers the elite nanny service hasn’t deposited her check (because nobody by the name of Grace works there, oooOOOooo), Mary begins to investigate Grace’s background. It turns out that Grace isn’t from the elite nanny service Mary thought she hired her from — she had a job cleaning bathrooms at the gym when she overheard Mary and Elaine discussing Mary’s plans for the new book. When Mary goes to share what she’s learned with Elaine (a role that seems mainly to provide Mary with a wise Black best friend), she finds her dead in her office, murdered by — I’m not kidding — a pair of scissors. (Is this … a lesbian joke?)
After a ludicrous police-interrogation scene, Mary begins to research Grace’s background, uncovering her true identity via a brief library-book-based investigation. She learns that Grace grew up in some kind of religious torture cult, and as a result has multiple personalities, though it’s also maybe genetic — Mary meets Grace’s aunt, who also has one polite personality and one gruff one. (Obviously, none of this is based in any real psychology, and might be more clearly offensive if it were clear what the people behind this movie were going for.)
The short version of the movie’s oddly anticlimactic end is that Grace’s evil personality (so identified because she uses the C-word) wants to kill Tom and possibly Mary, but because Mary is able to access Grace’s nice personality (with the braid), she doesn’t. She is then institutionalized, but in a nice way — she has apparently reverted to childhood, and is playing with toys when Mary brings her flowers. In mere minutes, Dermot Mulroney goes from bleeding out on his bathroom floor to playing ring-around-the-rosy with his family, their collective heterosexuality fully restored.
There is so much here I haven’t even touched on — the plot holes (more like plot canyons), the dialogue (Grace’s “One thing you have to know about me, Tom, is I’m completely insane”), the use of a blender in a small, needlessly graphic scalping incident. There is, believe it or not, a bra-fitting scene. Talk about the element of surprise! I understand why people hated this movie, but I found it a very rich text. The only thing that would have made it more fun would have been to watch it in a theater, feeling the energy shift as we collectively realized we were watching an iconically bad movie. That moment when someone first laughs out loud at a scene that wasn’t meant to be funny — I love that.