To those of us in Las Vegas, the scandal surrounding the death of casino mogul Ted Binion is a historical event, something that was endlessly covered in the news and captured the city’s attention for years. But to the rest of the country, it’s just another salacious sex-drugs-and-violence story, and thus perfect fodder for a cheesy, cheap Lifetime movie. Which is exactly what it’s become in Sex and Lies in Sin City (Lifetime, October 25, 9 p.m.), a dull, by-the-numbers dramatization based on the book Murder in Sin City by Las Vegas Sun reporter Jeff German.
Mena Suvari stars as alleged murderer Sandy Murphy, who was first convicted and then, at a re-trial, acquitted of killing live-in boyfriend Binion, played by Matthew Modine. The other major player in the case, Murphy’s lover Rick Tabish, is played by the remarkably charisma-free Johnathon Schaech. The limited appeal of Lifetime movies comes mainly in their overwrought acting and dialogue, but only one person brings the right amount of crazy to this movie, and that’s Marcia Gay Harden as Binion’s sister Becky, who spearheaded the efforts to convict Murphy and Tabish of murder.
Harden gives a wonderfully campy performance as the flamboyant Becky, who’s nearly as sleazy as trophy girlfriend Murphy; the one almost great scene in the movie comes as Becky, Ted and Becky’s teenage son Benny all point guns at each other around the dinner table while Murphy looks on, horrified. They go from death threats to laughter in the blink of an eye, suggesting a much more interesting alternate tale about the crazy inner workings of this iconic Las Vegas family, one we sadly don’t get to see.
Instead, we get the tawdry story of a trashy ex-stripper, who may or may not have killed her rich boyfriend but is classless beyond a shadow of a doubt. The movie is mostly sympathetic to Murphy, but it demonstrates that sympathy by portraying her as a credulous simpleton easily swayed by Binion, Tabish and bright, shiny objects. The storytelling is nothing if not efficient; within the movie’s first two minutes, Murphy has arrived in Vegas (driving past the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, natch), lost all her money gambling and ended up as a dancer at Cheetah’s. It’s like the beginning of Showgirls, only devoid of any humor or entertainment value.
Aside from a few endlessly recycled establishing shots, Sex and Lies was filmed entirely in New Mexico, and it showcases the finest in bargain-basement production values. It’s probably asking too much to hope for a Lifetime movie to offer more than romance-novel-level depth, but Sex and Lies is especially desultory; given all the uncertainty surrounding what really happened to Binion, there isn’t even the cathartic wronged-woman identification that comes with most Lifetime productions.
Sex and Lies is just boring, run-of-the-mill garbage, destined to be repeated sandwiched in between productions starring Nancy McKeon or Meredith Baxter. For Las Vegans, that’s a minor tragedy, but for the folks at Lifetime, it’s merely business as usual.