Presumed Dead in Paradise (Review)
Presumed Dead in Paradise
Story by Douglas Shaffer
Written by Steven Palmer Peterson
Directed by Mary Lambert
Lifetime takes a riff on the Natalee Holloway case and turns it into a conspiracy thriller where the victim is presumed murdered but lives, potentially foiling a plan to seize millions in a trust fund in her name. Presumed Dead in Paradise becomes its own beast, delivering an okay film that succeeds mostly thanks to the performances. Some of the plot details are telegraphed in advance, but the level of planning that went into the master plan of the villain are remarkable, and shows the writers thought things through to keep the villain afloat even as multiple things start going wrong.
Madison Ashland (Malese Jow) is one of those rich kids who gets sent to a new school or three every year because she’s disruptive. No wonder, as her mom died long ago, and her dad then died, leaving her with an evil step-mom who ignores her and leaves her alone at the schools for the holidays. Madison acts out, angry at life and having a generic rich girl name, helping other students steal tests via Mission Impossible-style stunts.
Surprises of surprises when her stepmother Patricia Ashland (Olivia d’Abo) shows up to reconnect, and to do so by vacationing on the island of St. Isabelle, where Madison and her father used to take trips when she was younger. Things seem to be going great, but a happy vacation does not an interesting Lifetime movie make. Soon Madison is saved from creepy guys by nice guy Blake. But Blake turns out to be not so nice, drugging her and then taking her out to sea under the guise of teaching her surfing. Soon she collapses into the ocean, and awakens on an abandoned beach. Making her way to the hotel, she soon sees Patricia and Blake making out, and overhearing how they planned her death! But they spot her, and Madison runs.
A trip to the police goes nowhere, as Madison has no proof she is who she says she is. Patricia then comes in with a fake Madison, and soon the real Madison is arrested. Luckily, the dumb as rocks police let her use the bathroom alone and she runs. The only one who can help Madison is the boy she was friends with long ago, that she reconnects with thanks to plot magic. But what can they do with the odds stacked against them?
Presumed Dead in Paradise managed to be better than expected in parts. Patricia sets things up so perfectly that even with Madison constantly screwing up the plans by not dying and continually escaping, there are numerous fallbacks. The fake Madison scene was genius, and gave a cool Twilight Zone feel. They peg Madison as an insane stalker, which makes her obsession with proving she’s the real Madison come off as more and more delusional crazy. Madison is cut off from all social media thanks to changing all her passwords, she has no ID (except her own fake ID!), and she’s constantly being hunted by Blake. Madison’s lack of long-term friends from her constant shuffling around from prep school to prep school means there is no one she can call in an emergency for help. It is even implied Patricia helped encourage Madison’s acting out to get sent from school to school to help isolate her for the eventual coup of her life.
Patricia’s long-term planning does work against her, as she’s played the long game for so long, it isn’t hard for Madison to point out to Blake that he’s probably next on her hit list. Patricia as the evil genius helps with her being cast by Olivia d’Abo, who played a long-time nemesis of Detective Robert Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent that would totally plan and commit a genius plan like this (let’s just ignore how her character is written off the show!) There is even hints that she might be behind her husband’s death.
Patricia does have her hands full with her cunning plan. Not only is Madison not cooperating, but Blake keeps failing to kill her, and the Fake Madison (named Taylor) continually freaks out that the real Madison is coming to kill her. It’s also hampered by not knowing just what is in the safety deposit box for Madison. Patricia’s greed sets the plan in motion, but while it is running she has to improvise, and eventually this causes some loose ends to start flying around that threaten to derail everything.
Malese Jow plays a good Madison, an abandoned rich girl who acts out because she has nothing else going on. She spends most of her time thinking about her father and the close relationship they had. She keeps Madison from getting too snotty, letting you emphasize with the character who was given more than most people ever get in life, even if her life is full of problems. When the rug is yanked out from her, the years of acting out aid her in breaking into hotel rooms and identifying where hidden valuable stuff would be located. Gavin Houston is the obviously conflicted Blake, who knows he has a job to do, but can also see where things will be headed in the future with regards to his own fate. Luis Omar O’Farrill doesn’t get enough time as Andres, Madison’s childhood friend, as he doesn’t appear until near halfway through the film. He’s had trouble of his own, with his parents dying in a hurricane and growing up in the street helped out by a radical group that got in trouble with the government. It’s a tale of poverty that is more common than it should be, and also means he just can’t walk into a police station to collaborate Madison’s story. Alix Elizabeth Gitter is fun as Taylor, the Fake Madison, who is a computer hacking expert and constantly worried that Madison will burst in and get her. You can tell she’s not used to plans going even slightly wrong.
The good performances elevate Presumed Dead in Paradise, but that’s not enough to make it a must watch. But it’s certainly worth checking out when it airs on Lifetime and related networks. Fans of fake websites used in movies will enjoy the websites Gi-Mail, Faces and Friends, and a search engine called Zowie. Fans of movies where a character wears a key on her necklace the entire film that everyone knows will somehow factor into the conclusion will also be in for a treat. It is also a Lifetime movie with a female director, Mary Lambert, who does a few neat things with the soundtrack and the scenes set in the prep school. If you are a finicky viewer who only likes it when Lifetime goes completely off the rails, this paradise has been paved and turned into a parking lot.
Rated 5/10 (cop, cop, hipster, treasure, treasure)
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