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Naomi Spinner (Chrishell Hartley) is a star of a popular talk show, having close friends in her stern but caring boss Scarlett (Nicole Bilderback) and her co-host Robert (Charlie O'Connell). Naomi also has an adoring husband in the form of architect Trent (Darrin Dewitt Nelson), whose recent project could mean enough money for the couple to relax and begin focusing on having a family. The only black mark in Naomi's otherwise idyllic life is that her show is struggling to attract the ratings they used to receive.
Things change Naomi runs into a familiar face: Jake Everett (Jason Dolley), her best friend from college who she ran a talk show with. Their friendship came to an abrupt end after Jake was named the prime suspect in the murder of a popular quarterback, and feeling that she owes Jake for how she ended things between them, Naomi promises to help Jake find new work. When Robert tragically suffers a fatal heart attack, Jake proves to be a godsend when he takes Robert's place on the show, giving the show the boost in ratings it was looking for while reconnecting with Naomi. Unbeknownst to Naomi, Jake's feelings for her go well beyond friendship, and he is more than willing to get more blood on his hands to have Naomi all to himself.
In spite of making its debut on Netflix, Staged Killer is as Lifetimey as can be. Director by frequent Lifetime flyer Christopher Ray, written by frequent Lifetime stars Lindsay Hartley and Jason-Shane Scott, and with Reel One Entertainment as its distributor, the channel's fingerprints are all over this film. To say nothing of the plot, which follows a formula familiar to Lifetime fans: woman meets a male best friend from the past, who turns out to be psychotic, obsessed with her, and willing to stoop to murder to have her to himself. While the film makes for an enjoyable enough watch, formula is where much of Staged Killer's faults lie—that being, how very closely the film sticks to a formula that has been rehashed countless times before.
For the most part, Staged Killer follows the standard beats of a Lifetime-ian obsession thriller to a T, with little alterations done to give the film an identity of its own. While interesting ideas are played with in places, particularly during the climax where the film's media setting is well-utilized, much of the film's runtime is dedicated to well-treaded plot points. As I've said before, it takes a certain alchemy and a bit of blind luck to make a heavily worn plot entertaining, and for much of Staged Killer, that crucial spark is missing.
The cast is where the film shines brighter, with Chrishell Hartley making for a sweet and likable protagonist. Much of this is at play in Naomi's arc with Jake, with Hartley and Jason Dolley playing well off each other during the "Reconnected Best Friends" dynamic as well as when things starts to hit the fan. Hartley sells Naomi's genuine care for Jake and value of their friendship, as well as her regret of having deserted him years prior. Hartley also sells Naomi's emotional scenes as her life begins falling apart thanks to Jake's actions, while also maintaining strength that comes out in the third act when she finally puts everything together and learns Jake's true nature.
Jason Dolley is similarly strong as Jake Everett, even when the film's formulaic parts leave him with little to work with. With his boyish good looks and chipper attitude, Dolley plays Jake with natural charm that you can see why no one suspects him. He even manages to inject some originality into his otherwise routine villain role; for all of Jake's psychotic tendencies, Dolley plays him without the usual "Entitled to Have You" mannerisms and gives off the impression during the film's conclusion that Jake really does love Naomi—even if it's in a clearly unstable manner.
Another strong cast member is Darrin Dewitt Henson as Trent, who shares strong chemistry with Hartley and Dolley. Trent's interactions with Jake are particularly memorable not only for the strong friendship they form, but because of it breaking a common stereotype in these types of movies. Unlike other films of this nature, Trent not only doesn't become jealous of his wife's old male friend re-entering her life, but instead embraces it and strikes up a friendship with Jake. Henson plays Trent with a laid-back, authentic vibe in his scenes with Jake, giving his ensnarement in Jake's schemes an understated tragic sense. Nicole Bilderback is strong as the ambitious but compassionate Scarlett, acting as a Genre Savvy surrogate for the audience due to how quick she is to begin looking into Jake's past. And in a surprisingly strong minor role, Charlie O'Connell brings a lot of charisma to the ill-fated Robert, even if a good chunk of his dialogue is just foreshadowing to his demise.
Despite all the good Staged Killer has going for it, it doesn't take away from the oddly hard-to-explain feeling that it just lacks the zest that makes Lifetime movies fun for much of it. The cast, however, makes up for the film's weaker points through solid acting, allowing for Staged Killer to emerge from its mediocre elements mostly in tact. It's not a film to cancel plans over, but is still a solid thriller for when you want a good little time killer of a flick (no pun intended).
Score: 6 out of 10 sentimental diners.