TV movies, once the lifeblood of network TV schedules, now seem to be the exclusive province of cable, where different networks might have picked up different templates at the same yard sale. HBO makes the kind of high-toned, prestige TV films (such as Hemingway And Gelhorn) that come in handy when someone is looking for material to pad out Emmy categories; SyFy specializes in drive-in flicks for the home entertainment system, such as next week’s Bigfoot, in which the title character tries to fend off the attentions of rival sasquatch hunters, played by Greg Brady and Danny Partridge; and Lifetime makes the kind of torn-from-the-headlines true-crime docudramas that were exiled from the networks after someone figured out that tabloid shows full of talking heads and “dramatic recreations” could pull in the same sets of eyeballs at a fraction of the cost.
Tall Hot Blonde is the latest in an unofficial series of Lifetime TV-movies about the real-life dangers of the Internet. (It was preceded by The Wife He Met Online, The Boy She Met Online, and the instant classic Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life, in which Kelly Lynch’s level-headed, clean-living teenage son gets a taste of Internet porn and goes full Bob Crane, maxing out every credit card and hacking into every computer he can get his hands on in search of that sweet, sweet virtual stuff. Lifetime devoted the afternoon leading up to the premiere of Tall Hot Blonde to a marathon of these earlier films, demonstrating an admirable pride in its own contribution to cheese in our time.)
Garret Dillahunt stars as Thomas Montgomery, a family man and manual laborer in his late 40s who clearly feels that he has lost his mojo. At work, he takes a break from manning a circular saw to eat his lunch while gazing forlornly up at the ceiling, as if hoping UFOs will appear and start strafing the building. At home, he lies in bed paralyzed with anxiety, fearing that his wife (Laura San Giacomo, playing the grown-up Lisa Loopner) will express an interest in performing their marital duties together. Dillahunt’s glasses and mustache make him look like Ned Flanders, but if Dillahunt had played Ned Flanders, nobody would have believed that Maude’s death was an accident. Montgomery is a spent cartridge, using a polite, limp manner to conceal his rage over the loss of his youth and potency. The only release he gets comes from his regular poker games with his buddies from work. These well-meaning dolts plant the seeds of his ultimate self-destruction when they ask why he doesn’t join them for their online poker games. It’s a lot of fun, they tell him—most nights, they spend less time playing than they do just chatting. “What do you mean?” asks Montgomery. “You’re on the phone?”
Montgomery finally gets the Internet figured out well enough to join in the online games, and he takes to them like a duck to water: “I like this. I never get straights!” But then he gets drawn into a series of hot private chats with “Katie,” who tells him she’s a beautiful blonde high school student and sends him photos of herself that are balm for the eyes and his underdeveloped male ego. Trying to keep her interested, he pretends to be “Tommy,” a Marine sniper about to ship out to Afghanistan, and sends her a picture of his buff younger self, in uniform. It isn’t long before she’s sending him a packet of photos and a pink thong in the mail. The next time we see him at work, standing at his circular saw, his posture is straighter, and there’s a happy shower of fiery sparks flying from the general vicinity of his groin. The fantasy comes crashing down once his wife, curious about why he’s started staying up all night typing on the computer instead of staying up all night sprawled in front of the TV watching infomercials, discovers his secret and tells Katie the truth.
Most of Dillahunt’s performance is by-the-numbers creepy, as if he’d studied to play a creep by watching some of the better creepy performances from the Garret Dillahunt Collection, but he has one scene, reaching out to Katie online, that’s unsettling but also rather touching; his loneliness comes across as fathoms-deep, and because he seems too lost and ineffectual to hurt anyone, it’s easy to feel for him. Both Montgomery’s mental health and the movie itself roll straight downhill after that. Tall Hot Blonde is at its least compelling in its last half hour, when it’s stuck with the usual trajectory of regular-dull-guy-goes-nutzoid stories. Montgomery’s transformation into a dangerous nut isn’t carried off as smoothly as it might have been, but the actual Thomas Montgomery was apparently more openly nutty early on, and his online courtship practices were even creepier; he sought sympathy from Katie by telling her that he’d joined the military to straighten himself out after raping a high school classmate. (At the very end, there’s a twist that will be especially unsurprising to anyone who’s seen Catfish, or maybe even anyone who's heard “The Pina Colada Song.”)
Making her directing debut, Courtney Cox (who has a small, uncredited role as a co-worker of San Giacomo’s, resplendent in fruit-salad-colored scrubs), tries to elevate the material by artsying it up with scenes of Montgomery seeing himself as the youthful, sexy “Tommy,” and such pointed dialogue exchanges as having one of Montgomery’s kids tell him that the heightened version of reality depicted on a TV show she watches is “better than real,” so that he can reply, “Better than real? I don’t even know what that means.” Tall Hot Blonde isn’t very, what’s that word, “good,” but for most of its length, it holds your attention by the sheer inevitable awfulness of the story. And though Cox allows both Dillahunt and San Giacomo to act from the outside in and layer their performances down with too many dowdy mannerisms, both of them, at key moments, drill down into their unloved, unlovable characters and expose their painful emotions so completely that it’s hard to turn away, even if you might want to. You’ve heard of cringe comedy? This is cringe docudrama.