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'The College Admissions Scandal' review: It just barely passes

Mia Kirshner, left, and Penelope Ann Miller star

Mia Kirshner, left, and Penelope Ann Miller star in Lifetime's "The College Admissions Scandal" Saturday at 8 p.m. Photo Credit: Lifetime/Sergei Bachlakov

THE MOVIE "The College Admissions Scandal"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Slick and more-than-slightly creepy college admissions consultant Rick Singer (Michael Shanks) makes the acquaintance of well-heeled Brentwood, California, parents Caroline (Penelope Ann Miller) and Jackson (Robert Moloney) who want to get their son, Danny (Sam Duke), into Stanford. Danny, a musician, would just as soon work at music gigs. Meanwhile, Bethany (Mia Kirshner) wants Yale and only Yale for daughter, Emma (Sarah Dugdale). Singer has some ideas about how to boost Danny's SAT score, and to gild Emma's application with a few pictures of her playing soccer. Checks are written, promises made, and soon enough, the Feds come calling after Singer — the only character based on a real person from the real scandal — who begins to cooperate with them.

MY SAY What took Lifetime so long to get "The College Admissions Scandal" on the air? The real College admissions scandal broke March 12, then the tidal wave of news stories followed, while after that — right on schedule — came the Schadenfreude. The rich, the famous, the One Percent, were getting a public flogging. How delicious, how utterly delicious. In a perfect world, "The College Admissions Scandal" should have hit the air on March 13. 

But the world's not perfect while TV is TV. It takes a minimum of six months to produce even the quickest of quickie movies. This one does have the advantage of a nominal hook: Felicity Huffman will begin serving a two-week sentence for her role in the scandal on Oct. 25. Otherwise, over these last six-plus months, the wheels of justice have done what they do (grind) and the rest of us have moved onto other scandals. That inevitably lends "The College Admissions Scandal" a yesterday's-news aftertaste, along with a sense that this probably isn't exactly how Operation Varsity Blues unfolded, but close enough for casual observers.

Like most ripped-from-the-headline TV movies, this is a morality tale scrawled in crayon. It's skillfully scrawled, even at moments movingly scrawled, but crayon is still the tool of choice. Don't come for subtlety or additional insight, but do come for a few heaping servings of crow served to the richly deserving.

These parents — fictional stand-ins for the 34 real ones who have been indicted so far — are broadly drawn in just two varieties. Caroline and Jackson are the initially reluctant converts to Singer's pitch. But soon enough, they've bought in and the slippery slope awaits. By contrast, Bethany is the dragon lady variety — the hedge fund manager from hell who blasts through all obstacles and who naturally gets the best or, at least, the most ridiculous lines. Trying to sell her daughter on the con, she says "You studied Darwin last year. Some species survive, some don't, some people can do this for their kids, some can't."

She lets the dopey message take effect, then follows with this: "I need to get a photograph of you kicking a soccer ball."

By the end, cornered and trapped, Bethany says "I know what I'm gonna do," her glass of chardonnay held unsteadily in hand. "I'm gonna call Ruth Madoff to see how she gets by."

While such a call was most likely never made in real life by a real parent ("Hey, Ruth, how are you getting by?"), it's still a key part of the formula here. Movies like this are less about fact, more about that crow. We want our villains and demand their fall. We come for vengeance, for smug self-satisfication, for the assurance that we'd never do anything this stupid.

But if the real college admissions scandal taught us anything, or further reminded us, there's lots of stupidity to go around. Throw in a little greed and you've got a poisonous combination — or at least the latest movie from Lifetime.

BOTTOM LINE Not bad but not subtle either, this is a broadly told story of overprivileged parents and their wounded offspring. You already know the sorry outcome.   

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