If a critically-acclaimed Netflix show can revolve around a murdered nun, why can't Lifetime produce prestige television? It's a question the network is exploring with its foray into more serious content, like the Peabody-winning UnReal, which takes viewers behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like show, and American Psycho director Mary Harron's Anna Nicole Smith biopic.
Lifetime is furthering its high/low tone this weekend with the new movie Menendez: Blood Brothers. Directed by the creators of RuPaul's Drag Race, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the film melds together a 1990s true crime story, tacky marble bathroom sets, and a serious discussion about child sexual abuse. Menendez: Blood Brothers takes the position that Beverly Hills scions Erik and Lyle Menendez shot their parents, Kitty and Jose, because their music mogul dad molested them—a motive stated by the brothers at their two trials. (Kitty's brother, Brian Anderson, challenged the abuse claims in an interview with ABC News.)
Lifetime's scripts and wigs tend to render serious plotlines absurd, but Courtney Love's performance as Kitty holds the film together. If anyone was born to exemplify a high/low contrast, it's Love—the woman who built her career bouncing between classic rock albums, defending drug use to journalists, and winning awards for Oscar-bait flicks like The People vs. Larry Flynt.
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Menendez: Blood Brothers opens in soft light with Kitty wearing a hot pink blouse and pounding on a typewriter in her Beverly Hills office. Her teenage son, Erik (played by Myko Olivier), is dictating his movie script to her: "Hamilton enters his parents' bedroom… He strangles his father." Another Lifetime star would play the scene ironically, but Kitty looks clueless about what her son will later do to her. "Am I going to get a writing credit for being your secretary?" she blurts out in a raspy voice.
"You could write about me," she continues. "I used to be exciting!" She was once a member of a group of girls called the Party Dolls. She could have become a television producer, she tells Erik, but she gave it all up for Jose.
Later, Kitty pretends to sleep in the master bedroom while Jose (Benito Martinez) leaves her to wander to Erik's room. He orders his son to perform fellatio like a manipulative general. Kitty overhears his demands but stays quiet the whole time, her face filling with regret.
Love knows how to subtly underplay a horrifying abuse scene, but she also knows when to go full Lifetime. When her balding college-age son Lyle (Nico Tortorella) arrives home, she skips over to him in a long red gown. "Lay off the booze and get on a treadmill!" Lyle shouts. Kitty complains, "I'm sick of you being so mean to me!" and rips out Lyle's hair piece forcefully. Love lives for the scene; one can imagine her channeling Real Housewife Camille Grammer on set.
Reality shows take longer to develop crucial plot points than the time Menendez: Blood Brothers takes to set up the murders. Audiences have barely met Lyle before he's instructing his brother to kill their parents to end his molestation. (Lyle says Kitty also has to go because she's remained silent about the abuse.)
The actual murder is a campy, classic Lifetime-meets-Drag-Race moment. When Lyle and Erik barge into the living room with rifles, Kitty jumps and screams. They shoot Jose in the stomach and then in her hip. As the next few bullets knock her to the ground, she pleads, "Eric, please." She utters few words during the pivotal sequence, playing the role with her big, blue eyes. Love would have made a great silent actress.
It's her co-stars who struggle with some of their scenes. When Erik confesses the molestation to Lyle, the older brother flips out. "He will never touch you again!" he vows, but his self-confidence comes across as unnatural for a college boy who was screaming at his mom for ripping off his wig a few minutes earlier.
Odd sexual overtones proliferate the film. Erik crawls into Lyle's bed as they plan the murder. He whimpers, "Maybe we could call the police," somehow making a line about child molestation sound like a come-on. After Lyle and Erik are arrested for murder, a cop makes Erik strip and squat. "Expose your buttocks!" the guard yells. It sounds almost like a hot porn scene, until Erik catches a glimpse of his father's ghost and the audience is reminded they're watching a Menendez Brothers biopic.
Love's supernatural scenes work better. She accompanies Erik in a cop car in a long white dress and follows him as he wanders the jail's halls, singing in her legendary raspy voice, "Sounds of the real world ruin the day." When Erik collapses on his prison cot, he lays his head on her lap. In another ghost scene, Kitty encourages Kyle "not to make mistakes I made." She tells him, "You're free [from your father," and Erik reminds her, "I was never free, Mom. Neither were you." Judging from the look on Kitty's face, she knows what he means.
It's difficult to be over-the-top in one scene, and subtle the next, without the performance seeming disjointed. But Love's biggest talent has always been being able to be more than one thing at once. It's a feat necessary to elevate a Lifetime flick into art.