Lifetime’s original movie A Deadly Adoption was supposed to be a secret, aired with little fanfare and opaque promo spots that provided no detail about who starred in it. The movie would look like typical Lifetime fare, but those who turned in would be shocked to see Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig as the stars. When word of the project leaked early, Ferrell was quite upset the secret got out. Lifetime put out a lot of weird mixed signals in its response, but at one point the story was that A Deadly Adoption was being canceled. That seemed unlikely, given that the film was already in the can at the time the news leaked. But at a certain point, the whole narrative got muddied and it seemed just as likely the whole thing was an elaborate viral marketing stunt.
Upon seeing A Deadly Adoption, it’s much easier to make sense of why Ferrell would react so negatively to the project leaking, even to the point of preferring it didn’t air at all. Adoption isn’t outright terrible, but such qualitative judgments become elastic when you’re this far into kitsch genre homage. A Deadly Adoption is to the melodramatic, made-for-TV domestic thriller as Black Dynamite is to Blaxploitation or as The House Of The Devil is to horror films of the Satanic panic era. Adoption is a meticulous recreation of a Lifetime potboiler, played completely straight by its entire cast, save for a few minutes at the end. It’s not a spoof or a riff, it’s the real thing, right down to the note.
Given what the film is, Ferrell was right to be bummed out about the way its airing came about. Imagine if it had aired as the creators intended: A few people would tweet that there was the weirdest movie on Lifetime, then it would start trending, and people would tune in to bug out en masse about how straight-faced it all was. And the final moment, in which Ferrell and Wiig break into a weirdly exuberant dance party, would have killed. As it stands, Adoption is a fun oddity instead of the minor cultural moment it could have been. The title is funny: It’s simply a deadly adoption, neither more nor less significant than any of the other deadly adoptions you hear about every day. Aside from that, the film isn’t overtly funny, excepting a few goofy shots and stilted line readings. Presented without a drum roll, Adoption would be really funny, the slow kind of funny that builds the longer the absurdity goes on with no end in sight.
The film’s conspicuous release not only makes Adoption less funny, it makes it less authentic. Most enjoyable Lifetime movie experiences revolve around surprise. You’re flipping through channels and land on some hypnotic Lifetime movie, having no idea what it is or where it came from. Part of the draw is that you sort of recognize the star and have vague yet fond memories of them from other things. But you also vaguely recall them being sick or in rehab or something, and you’re glad to see they’re doing better. Plus the titles are always tweaked to maximize morbid curiosity. So it’s like, if you can support Park Overall and find out what Katie’s Secret is in one fell swoop, why would you not do that? Then you find yourself mildly invested in what’s happening but also tickled by the narrative and thespian excess. But it typically all begins with: “What the hell is this?”
In Adoption, all the goods are right up front. Ferrell and Wiig star as Robert and Sarah Benson, a stock-photo perfect couple. He’s a financial guru on the cusp of reaching a national audience, while she keeps all her business local as the owner of a line of organic food products. They’re raising a young daughter, Sully (Alyvia Alyn Lind), and struggling to get over a past heartbreak. Five years earlier, a pregnant Sarah ambled onto a corroded dock, then tumbled over a boat and into the water, with Robert right behind her. Robert’s quick action is enough to save Sarah, but they lose the baby. Years later, the Bensons are still eager to add to their family, so they gravitate toward adoption. Enter Bridgette (Jessica Lowndes), who has a baby she wants to put up for adoption. She chooses to place her baby with the Bensons, and she’s welcomed into their home while they await the birth of her baby.
By the time Robert and Sarah have discovered the truth—Bridgette is actually Joni, a crazed microeconomics groupie who bedded Robert—Joni has absconded with Sully, who desperately needs her insulin to live. (“You know the dangers of diabetic ketoacidosis!” Robert snaps in the movie’s best line reading.) The third act involves Robert and Sarah desperately trying to find Joni and Sully before Sully is harmed. Plot-wise, it’s a weird gumbo of a lot of different films and sub-genres. The Spoils Of Babylon creator Andrew Steele wrote the script, which captures everything about the Lifetime movie style but none of the structure. Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg spends quite a bit of time building on Sully learning Joni’s secrets, but before Sully can spill what she knows, Joni has already taken off with her and no one feels genuinely in danger. Say what you will about Lifetime movies—like the similar, superior Adopting Terror—they haul ass from beginning to end. Adoption is ploddingly paced and feels interminable.
Everything about Adoption is right visually, and Ferrell and Wiig are close enough to where they should be tonally, but it’s all a bit too earnest. Ferrell and Wiig’s performances are a bit too nuanced, as if they’re afraid pushing it any harder would tilt the film from homage to parody. Lowndes doesn’t have those constraints, and she has the luxury of playing the psychologically imbalanced villain, so she’s the only one in the cast who really goes for it. Aside from Lowndes’ performance, Adoption feels awfully safe and bloodless. In a post-Orphan world, it isn’t enough to have the shocking twist be some boring affair. Admittedly, it’s pretty funny for Joni to have met Robert during his book-tour pub crawls, which are illuminated in a gorgeous flashback sequence with Robert as the halfway point between Jim Cramer and Joe Francis. But everything outside of Joni is respectful to the point of being wan.
To the extent Adoption wobbles, it’s hard to take issue with the creators. The movie communicates how it was intended to be consumed—as much in the dark as possible—and it would clearly hit its mark had it been deployed that way. The news stories about the film are, in hindsight, spoilers in sheep’s clothing.