More like “Fifty Shades of Beige,” “Brazen” applies an unconvincing dollop of kink into an equally by-the-numbers suburban mystery, providing a vehicle for producer-star Alyssa Milano as a crime novelist turned sleuth after her sister’s murder. This Netflix adaptation of a 1988 tome by prolific romance scribe Nora Roberts is slick but increasingly silly, its various elements so obvious and formulaic that they induce giggles more than chills by the climax. Still, whether viewers are looking for unintentional laughs or the streaming equivalent of a throwaway beach read, Monika Mitchell’s feature does offer some guilty-pleasure entertainment value.
Introduced reading from her latest “Brazen Virtue” (the actual Roberts novel this is based on) at a public event, Milano’s Grace Miller is a celebrity author with a big fanbase. Having frowned upon some of Kathleen’s (Emilie Ullerup) past life choices, she hasn’t actually seen her younger sibling in five years, but comes running when she gets a seemingly urgent message. Turns out Kath, who still lives in the D.C. house they grew up in, needs Grace to co-sign a mortgage so she can hire a lawyer to fight for full custody of her young son, who’s currently in the spiteful charge of her “rich and connected” ex-husband (David Lewis). Kath is proud to confide she’s kicked a pill addiction, and is duly employed teaching at a local high school. What she does not tell her sister is that she also secretly sidelines as a webcam performer, acting the role of dominatrix for paying online customers from a locked studio behind her bedroom.
She has just wrapped one of those sessions when she’s attacked by a home intruder, her corpse discovered later when visiting Grace returns from a first date with Ed (Sam Page), the hunky police homicide detective next door. Believing her novels are best-sellers because “I can get in the mind of a killer,” distraught-but-irate Grace insists on “assisting” in the investigation Ed and his partner Ben (Malachi Weir) are fast assigned. It is perhaps the single most preposterous element in a none-too-credible plot here that this request should be tolerated, even rubber-stamped by the cops’ superior (Alison Araya), despite our heroine’s obvious personal conflicts — not least the fact that she’s romantically involved with (and now staying in the house of) the chief officer.
Meanwhile, other women doing similar kinky livestreams are targeted by the same perp. Suspects that emerge include not just Grace’s nasty ex, but two of her students (Matthew Aaron Finlan, Daniel Diemer), the school janitor (Aaron Paul Stewart), people affiliated with the streaming site she’d worked for, and so forth.
We’ll provide no spoilers here, but suffice it to say this is exactly the kind of movie in which one can safely bet whichever actor does the most portentous scenery-chewing will emerge as the killer. Will audiences be any more surprised when Grace decides that she herself must don the latex and crack the bullwhip on camera to “bait” the still-uncaught villain, while police leave her vulnerably alone at the crucial moment for no good reason at all?
Not quite flamboyant enough to be a camp-value keeper, “Brazen” nonetheless does chalk up more than its share of unintentional yoks. That’s largely because the bland, romcom-worthy environs render the whole “everybody’s being a dominatrix for extra cash in their backroom” thing especially ridiculous, while depleting any real tension of either a suspense-thriller or erotic nature. Some very weak dialogue adds to the heavily contrived feel, as does the substitution of British Columbia locations for Washington D.C. settings (despite an occasional establishing aerial view).
The supporting actors, whom one sometimes suspects of struggling to keep a straight face, cannot be faulted. Well-cast and professional, they do what they can to prop up this cardboard contraption. Milano, however, seems to adopt the material’s willingness to take it more seriously than warranted, while appearing oblivious to the fact that Grace comes off neither particularly sympathetic nor as smart as we’re meant to believe. The character protests that her books are really about “misogyny and patriarchy.” Yet what we hear of them sounds like exploitative pulp trash — just as “Brazen” makes the odd lunge at similar elevating claims for itself, while always seeming exactly like something that would originate from the author of 200-plus potboilers with titles like “Sacred Sins” and “Naked in Death.”
In a way, the expert if generic gloss lent that material by telepic veteran Mitchell and her collaborators heightens its fun, whether in ways intended or not. Hitting every expected narrative and tonal mark on cue, this may be an ostensible serial-killer thriller, but the only thing “Brazen” here is the film’s dedication to a particular kind of viewing comfort food.