"Happy Face Murders," touted as an incredible tale based loosely on a true story, is enamored with the absurdities of its own script, playing up the horrific elements and missing altogether the intrinsic black comedy. What director Brian Trenchard-Smith and writer John Pielmeier don't realize is that black comedies rely on an affection for the characters in addition to the subtle mockery.

“Happy Face Murders,” touted as an incredible tale based loosely on a true story, is enamored with the absurdities of its own script, playing up the horrific elements and missing altogether the intrinsic black comedy. What director Brian Trenchard-Smith and writer John Pielmeier don’t realize is that black comedies rely on an affection for the characters in addition to the subtle mockery. Despite some solid acting turns, the disdain Trenchard-Smith and Pielmeier have for their characters is obvious from the very first frame of the pic — there’s no justification for the hideous wig Ann-Margret is forced to wear.

The veteran actress does a credible job as Lorraine Petrovich, an elderly grandmother who lives in the shadow of an ominous water tower and shares her home with an abusive alcoholic lover Rusty Zuvic (Nicholas Campbell). An avid TV fanatic, Petrovich sees a news report on a murder and calls the police to suggest Rusty killed Tracy Billings (Emily Hampshire). Detectives Jen Powell (Marg Helgenberger), a tough broad from the wrong side of the tracks, and Dylan McCarthy (Henry Thomas), an enterprising and rich young grad student, investigate Petrovich’s claims, not realizing she’s framing Rusty.

The real killer, meanwhile, is the seemingly happy-go-lucky trucker named Billy Lee (Rick Peters). Upset that someone else is getting credit for his work, he starts writing letters to the police department labeled with a smiley-face logo.

Fascinating story behind “Happy Face Murders” is culled from the producers’ show “Unsolved Mysteries.” The facts of the murder case are basically true, but reality and fiction are separated by Pielmeier’s many cliches, including the pathologist who eats sushi during an autopsy; the hard-nosed detective with a soft heart for stray dogs and the rich college kid with an agenda.

Halfway into the telepic, Trenchard-Smith drops most of the cheap visual stunts (closeups of pounding meat) and the movie actually becomes engrossing. As Lorraine’s lies keep escalating, more people are willing to sacrifice credibility in the name of a solution.

Despite the burden of acting in a ridiculous wig, Ann-Margret proves wily enough for such a schemer, and quirky and desperate enough to be rid of the abusive Rusty to pull off such a stunt. Helgenberger, although capable here, never stretches beyond the tough broad routine. Her scenes with Thomas soften her character a bit, although the stale dialogue tends to kill any attempt at conveying real human emotions.

The film’s most inspired performances come from Campbell in the most thankless roles of Rusty, and Hampshire’s doomed Billings.

Bert Dunk’s lensing is rich, and editor Bill Goddard does some nice splicing, especially with the flashback sequences.

Tech credits are fine.

Happy Face Murders

Showtime; Sun. Sept. 5, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Toronto by Cosgrove/Meurer Prods. in association with Showtime. Executive producers, John Cosgrove, Terry Dunn Meurer; producers, Diane Jeanne, Ned Welsh; director, Brian Trenchard-Smith; writer, John Pielmeier.

Cast

Lorraine Petrovich - Ann-Margret Jen Powell - Marg Helgenberger Dylan McCarthy - Henry Thomas Rusty Zuvic - Nicholas Campbell Billy Lee Peterson - Rick Peters Alan Sanford - David McIlwraith Ephraim Quince - Bruce Gray Ed Baker - JC Mackenzie Tracy Billings - Emily Hampshire
Camera, Bert Dunk; editor, Bill Goddard; music, Elmer Bernstein; casting, Jon Comerford, Helen Mossler. Running Time: 2 HOURS.
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