It’s tricky deciding what kind of cheese “Deadly Illusions,” a diverting thriller starring Kristin Davis and Dermot Mulroney streaming on Netflix, is exactly. Soft and overripe, from the look of it. Which poses the question, when is its cheesiness intentional and when is it clumsy? From the movie’s nudging title sequence — with steady fretful music — to its final teasing scene, the movie appears to wink at the genre, but to what end? Think too hard about it and “Deadly Illusions,” written and directed by Anna Elizabeth James, may even prove vexing. What is it saying about class? About trauma? About how women — the characters but also the director — view each other?
But why trouble our pretty little heads with those quandaries when we could sit back deep into the couch and giggle at the story of Mary Morrison, her near-perfect family and the pert and innocent (or is she?) nanny hired to keep an eye on Mary and husband Tom’s late-in-life young’uns while Mary dives into her final novel in a best-selling series.
Mary writes books with titles like the one this movie boasts: menacing yet vague. When the film opens, she’s retired to her lovely compound of a home — all concrete, modern lines and floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows — to be a stay-at-home mom. Davis brings a kind of nervous energy to Mary. It’s not fair but accurate to think of her as her “Sex and the City” character, Charlotte, with a pinch more smarts and gravitas.
Alas, her publisher wants just one more tome from this blockbuster scribe. Charlotte stands her ground even when a new assistant to her editor pokes her rather hard about her privilege. When Tom confesses that they could use the extra dough she’s been offered, her fate is sealed.
The film plays with the “illusion” part of the title early on. Mary reminds best friend Elaine (Shanola Hampton) that part of the reason she doesn’t want to take on a new book is that she’s not herself once she begins writing. Hmm. Is that a warning that the worlds of fiction and fact might meld? That she’s unstable?
To ease Mary’s anxiety, Elaine puts her friend in touch with a high-end, child-care outfit. After a montage of nanny interviews — some nutty, some sad — Grace comes into their lives.
Fact and fiction do appear to entwine, enough so that we can’t tell when Mary is imagining events or if they actually happened — like steamy dalliances with the impossibly perfect Grace. The soft-core girl-on-girl tease feels like a throwback, more “Red Shoe Diaries” than “Basic Instinct.”
Greer Grammer does an able job of being too good to be true. Indeed, the three leads keep us guessing about their decency. Is Mary breaking boundaries? Is Tom going to seduce or be seduced? Is Grace a Trojan-horse sitter — all sweetness and light until she’s overtaken the family? That’s what Elaine suggests.
Grace is as blond as Mary is brunette, and there’s a “who’s innocent, who’s exploiting” tango built into their interactions. There are times to doubt Grace’s persona completely and other times to worry for her. That’s an achievement. Too bad the screenplay doesn’t maneuver those tensions better. Somewhere coursing beneath this film is either a brilliant dark comedy or a knowing, unnerving riff about the power dynamics of two women, wary and drawn to each other.
There are tropes galore in “Deadly Illusions” that act as red herrings, breadcrumbs toward the truth, or MacGuffins, all of which underscore the debt “Deadly illusions” owes to Hitchcock. There’s Grace’s ribboned braid, a shower scene, a pair of shearing scissors employed lethally. There are nods, too, to Brian De Palma. It’s enough to give a viewer vertigo.