A Perfect Husband

In an interview on USA Network’s website for A Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story, Dean Cain, who portrays Scott Peterson, explains that the film is not about the murder. It is, he says, more “about how a family and friends and a community can believe that a person is one way and then be completely betrayed and deceived and find out that [he is] completely something else.” “That sort of betrayal,” he goes on, “is really the story that we are telling.”

Cain doesn’t know how right he is. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this film’s weird dramatization and inappropriate timing are in themselves a betrayal of those same family, friends, and community. What is the point of such a project? When Sharon Rocha (Laci’s mother) made her excruciating statement to the press after Scott Peterson’s arrest, she surely exposed more abject betrayal and grief than anyone in her audience could ever want to see. It seems absurd to think anyone might need (or want) a made-for-tv movie to gain insight into the horror of losing a loved one to murder, especially at the (alleged) hands of someone close.

I can’t imagine there is person in the U.S. who isn’t already familiar with the “plot” of A Perfect Husband, thanks to 24-hour cable news networks and countless magazine and newspaper articles. The film begins with eight-months pregnant Laci’s disappearance on Christmas Eve, 2002, and ends with Scott’s arrest the next April, following the discovery of his son Conner’s and Laci’s badly decomposed bodies, washed up on shore in the San Francisco Bay area. Those responsible for making this movie should be applauded, I suppose, for not conjecturing about what happens in between. But because the film doesn’t even pretend to take an “innocent until proven otherwise” approach (Peterson is very obviously guilty here), we are left to wait for Laci’s family and friends to become aware of their betrayal.

The film does dramatize some “private” scenes (that is, scenes not taped for news broadcasts and replayed repeatedly), such as the Rochas’ discovery that Scott was cheating on Laci or the look on Amber Frey’s face when she sees Scott on the news and realizes that her boyfriend is married to a woman who’s gone “missing” — not to mention the moment when Sharon (Dee Wallace Stone) observes Scott’s damning use of this term, before he should know that she is “missing.”

These scenes underline the betrayal Cain asserts is the film’s point, but maybe we shouldn’t be privy to some of it. The most disturbing scene shows Sharon watching her daughter’s remains recovered. It begins with news footage of the authorities carrying Laci’s corpse in a yellow bodybag, then cuts to Sharon watching it in her living room (the same way most of us first saw it). She begins screaming in anguish. It is a short scene, but it seems a gross invasion of privacy and can only leave us feeling embarrassed by our voyeurism.

One could argue that such an image forces us to realize that there is a devastated family viewing the same footage we’ve seen over and over again, and they don’t have the luxury of emotional detachment. But this argument only reinforces the film’s outrageousness. It must have been awful enough to see your family tragedy over and over again in the news as it unfolded, but how much worse it must be to see a dramatization, and imagine millions tuning in to it for their Friday night entertainment.

But if the film’s narrative choices are troubling, so too is its poor acting. Cain, for one, is strangely dull. If you assume the film’s “guilty” verdict, there must be something charismatic about Peterson that enabled him to fool so many people. But it’s not obvious from Cain’s rendition: he didn’t even come across as a remotely good liar, let alone “perfect” in any sense. At times, his performance reduces to impersonation. The film begins with Diane Sawyer’s January 2003 interview with Scott on Primetime Live where she asks him pointblank, “Did you murder your wife?” Cain’s portrayal is a word-for-word, stammer-for-stammer, reenactment. Such precision is impressive, and the likeness between actor and subject is a bit creepy, but it’s a novelty act, like someone at a party giving in to requests to “do Scott Peterson!”

A similar “party trick” effect makes Stone’s reenactment of Sharon Rocha’s press conference just plain offensive. There’s something just not right about recreating so exactly such a profoundly emotional moment, a moment that had nothing to do with exactness. It’s a failure: Stone seems so focused on making sure her voice breaks and quivers to match Rocha’s, that her performance is paradoxically drained of emotion. More disturbingly, the moment in reenactment reminds us of the exploitative nature of tabloid (a.k.a. news) tv. For any mother to be expected to hold a press conference, much less hold one, at such a moment only underscores the increasingly performative aspect of what we like to call “real life.”

A movie of the Laci Peterson case was inevitable, but this one comes at a terrible time. The case is still pending, and as the jury hasn’t even been selected yet, the possibility of tainting the jury pool seems obvious. Then again, the USA network had plenty of motivation for making it now, including ratings and advertising dollars. Until the trial starts, the actual “news” has ebbed, such that cable news is left with dribs and drabs — prosecution and defense motions regarding changes of venue and admissibility of some evidence — knowing that there won’t be cameras allowed in the courtroom. So, USA is cashing in at a time that might actually be ideal, in an odious sort of way.