A correction was made to this review on Jan. 24, 2006.
“The Grifters” meets “Mommie Dearest” in this real-life story about mother-and-son con artists and killers Sante and Kenny Kimes, which offers Judy Davis another “No wire hangers!”-worthy biopic showcase to follow her no-holds-barred portrayals of Judy Garland and Nancy Reagan. Presented with more cheek and flair than your average Lifetime movie, pic will be a must-see in circles where such performances inspire viewing parties, but the execution doesn’t entirely sustain its initial promise, eventually succumbing to an episodic feel as it chronicles the Kimes’ crime spree.
So tawdry as to be irresistible, the Kimes’ oedipal act has already been fodder for a 2001 CBS movie, “Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes,” starring Mary Tyler Moore. The new wrinkle here, such as it is, is that Kenny has since testified against his mother in a 2004 trial.
Another small aside here is that producer and former Fox casting exec Randy Stone actually met Sante as a youth, a fact somewhat gratuitously incorporated into the picture.
Davis makes quite an entrance, sauntering into an auto dealership in bright-red lipstick, wowing the salesmen, then zipping away to “test drive” a car she has no intention of returning. Living with an older, wealthy man (Chelcie Ross) who won’t marry her, she’s obsessed with money and prone to petty and bizarre crimes. These include abusing her maids while railing at them in a twisted Spanglish, leading to her conviction on the charge of “slavery.”
In one of the more darkly amusing moments, Sante later looks stricken and betrayed when, after being admonishing for a fib, her young son says, “I’m never gonna lie again.”
“There is a time to lie, and there is a time not to lie, and I will be the one to teach him that!” she rages.
Once Ken Sr. is out of the picture, Sante and now-grown Kenny (“General Hospital’s” Jonathan Jackson) embark on a string of elaborate real-estate fraud schemes, operating under the mantra “No body, no crime” to escape detection. Their actions are amplified through direct-to-camera confessionals by victims’ loved ones or the detective chasing them (played by actors) as well as re-creations of interviews conducted with the perps themselves.
Hinting at an incestuous relationship between mother and son, the narrative drifts in the second half as it flits from crime to crime. Their luck runs out after the murder of an 82-year-old Manhattan socialite, giving way to the inevitable courtroom sequences, in which Sante, despite the mountain of evidence, can’t stop screaming about being framed.
Squeezed into skin-tight dresses and ’60s Liz Taylor wigs, Davis plays Sante as a force of nature, overshadowing everything and everyone else. It’s left to the cops and victims to remind us that the duo left behind “a trail of pain and death and misery.”
Terrible, terrible stuff, of course, but also dream material for tabloids, TV producers and networks every bit as hungry for attention as Sante was for a toothy bite of the good life.