Casting an actress of Judy Davis’ caliber in a made-for-TV movie is like hiring Michelangelo to spackle your ceiling. The level of virtuosity and attention to detail Davis brings to her work seems outsized, inappropriate for the slapdash medium of television drama. That said, Davis has pulled off some pretty awesome spackle jobs in the past few years. Her Emmy-winning performance as Judy Garland in the 2001 movie Me and My Shadows is one of the great pieces of biopic acting, less an impersonation than an uncanny channeling of the charismatic and needy actress. In The Reagans, the 2003 miniseries that CBS pulled due to protests from conservative groups (it eventually aired on Showtime), Davis played Nancy Reagan as a Machiavellian control freak who could also be a compassionate human being (watch the scene in which she begs her impassive husband to speak out on AIDS) and a devoted wife.
If Davis doesn’t bring quite that level of complexity to A Little Thing Called Murder ( Lifetime, tonight at 9 p.m. ET), a new two-hour movie about the real-life mother-and-son grifting team of Sante and Kenneth Kimes, it’s less her fault than the screenwriter’s. Her Sante Kimes is a pure moral monster, unshadowed by ambivalence or mixed motives. Indeed, her only motive for the multiple crimes that finally led to the Kimes’ arrest in 2000 appears to be untrammeled greed, with perhaps a touch of the sociopath’s glee in getting one over on society.
Costumed in white feather boas and lavender pantsuits, Davis tears around in fine form, sipping tropical cocktails and hurling glassware at her Latina servants (or, more precisely, slaves; according to the film, Kimes became only the second person in the 20th century to be convicted on slavery charges). The story of the real Sante Kimes is far too convoluted and bizarre to be packaged into a mere two hours of TV drama, but Davis gets across a sense of the character’s demonic entitlement as she helps herself to everything from salt shakers to convertibles—after visiting a car dealership, she takes one for a “test drive” that lasts over a year.
Jonathan Jackson, late of General Hospital, plays Sante’s youngest son and accomplice, Kenny, as an innocent caught in his mother’s Oedipal trap, while Chelcie Ross is touchingly feckless as her common-law husband, a wealthy older businessman who fell under Sante’s toxic spell but was smart enough to avoid marrying her (“I’d die broke, and soon,” he whispers to a friend). But Davis so towers over everyone else onscreen, she recalls that famous movie poster for The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.
A Little Thing Called Murder, directed by Richard Benjamin, plays the Kimes’ story as a black comedy, divided into chapters with titles like “The Little Loan Misunderstanding” or “The Little Subpoena Mixup.” This is certainly jollier than the usual solemn approach of the Lifetime network weeper, but at times it leaves the characters floating in a context-free void. There is a brief reference to Kimes’ poverty-stricken childhood and her rescue from homelessness by adoptive parents, but psychological back story—usually the heart and soul of this kind of movie—seems less important to Benjamin than appreciating the art of a well-turned con.
Mary Tyler Moore played Sante Kimes in a 2001 made-for-TV movie that covered only the Kimes’ last criminal act together, the murder of an 82-year-old Manhattan socialite named Irene Silverman. In the years since, Kenneth Kimes has testified against his mother on an older murder charge, providing the newer movie with a satisfyingly tragic denouement. But A Little Thing Called Murder’s best moments are the grimly funny ones, as when, asked by a DA if it’s true that her family’s motto is “No body, no crime,” Davis replies with an air of wounded dignity, “Our family motto is ‘Rainbows.’ “