Scoring an impressive titling trifecta that includes “Sex,” “Sin” and “Scandal,” this Lifetime movie simply doesn’t live down to its sleaze-mongering name. Shot in New Mexico for what looks like jackpots off penny slots, the fact-based story as depicted isn’t trashy enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure, other than perhaps admiring the micro-miniskirts the costume department appears to spray-paint on Mena Suvari. The networks sure don’t make ’em like this anymore, but “Sex & Lies” does evoke nostalgia for TV-movie fare like “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?”
Despite being subtitled “The Ted Binion Scandal,” “Sex & Lies in Sin City” focuses on Sandy (Suvari), the stripper that Las Vegas casino heir Binion (Matthew Modine) hooks up with in an old-fashioned scene of love at first pole dance. Fond of 10-gallon hats, snorting heroin and lusty laughs of “Ha-ha-HAH!,” Binion is smitten by Sandy, which irritates his sister Becky (Marcia Gay Harden), who snarls about her brother shacking up with a “gold-diggin’, booty-shakin’ whore.”
Told mostly in flashback after Ted is found dead, the movie hinges entirely on whether Sandy killed him. Of course, she’s a prime suspect, mostly because her side boyfriend Rick (Johnathon Schaech) gets caught digging up bricks of silver that Ted buried to hide his ill-gotten gains.
Much of the story is thus dominated by a trial, which looks like it was shot in a high-school gymnasium rather than a courtroom. In between, Suvari — basically playing out the logical life arc of her character in “American Beauty” — has considerable opportunity to pout and glower, while Modine’s portrayal of Ted as an erratic junkie is unintentionally reminiscent of Lloyd Bridges in “Airplane!” sniffing glue until his hair stands straight up. (There is one memorable moment, when Ted and Becky get angry and pull guns on each other over a family dinner, and nobody reacts as if it’s a big deal.)
For the most part, though, director Peter Medak and writer Teena Booth play things too earnestly given how campy this is, relying on conversations among reporters to try and flesh out the story’s potential scenarios.
Lifetime continues to do reasonably well with original movies ranging from maudlin to trashy, most of them creating prominent parts for female leads. In this case, however, what happened in Vegas really should have stayed in Vegas.