Some movies try to blend genres as a master chef would blend cuisines, combining flavors—some familiar, some exotic—to create an experience unlike any you’ve experienced before. Not so with When The Bough Breaks, a textbook potboiler starring Regina Hall as Laura Taylor, a chef (thus the metaphor) who we never actually see cooking, just taking bites of things and closing her eyes in sensual bliss, the better for us to admire her perfectly fanned-out false eyelashes. Laura lives in a beautiful New Orleans mansion with her sexy, devoted lawyer husband, John (Morris Chestnut), where they sip wine and luxuriate in silk pajamas that perfectly cup their perfectly rock-hard buttocks, and there’s nary a pore between them. Despite her Crate & Barrel catalog of a life, though, Laura is incomplete as a woman, because she can’t bear a child.
Besides making her more sympathetic to the film’s middle-aged, black female target audience—See, she’s not perfect! Money and a good man can’t buy happiness!—Laura’s infertility provides the crack in the Taylors’ flawless facade into which danger can seep like so much moldy swamp water. In order to have the child they both desperately want, Laura and John turn to surrogacy, and they think they’ve found the perfect candidate in a shy, stunning 21-year-old waitress named Anna Walsh (Jaz Sinclair, also sporting some excellent false eyelashes). Laura bonds with Anna immediately—always a bad sign in an erotic thriller—but John is skeptical, especially after meeting Anna’s boyfriend Mike (Theo Rossi), who’s a scumbag and, it must be noted, decidedly lower-class.
John’s suspicions about Mike are soon proven correct when the police get called on a domestic violence charge, and John and Laura swoop in to protect the embryo recently implanted into Anna’s womb. They do so by buying Anna a car and inviting her to come live in their guest house, basically paying her to act as an incubator and lay by the pool for nine months until the baby’s born. What could go wrong? Anyone who’s ever seen a ’90s erotic thriller—or any of the myriad Lifetime movies that are basically watered-down ’90s erotic thrillers—can tell you what could go wrong. And boy, does it all go wrong. In fact, the plot doesn’t differ much from last year’s parody of these types of movies, A Deadly Adoption, down to a dramatic, gun-toting confrontation between scorned wife and psycho bitch toward the end.
When The Bough Breaks does try a little bit to defy the formula through the character of Mike, but, without saying too much, he’s not the real threat here. That could almost be considered a spoiler if the film’s trailer, or its poster, or its general theme didn’t give away the fact that this sweet young thing is actually an unstable succubus who’s out to steal the heroine’s man and/or identity. By the time private investigator Roland White (Michael Kenneth Williams) shows up toward the end of the second act to give us the rundown on the precise nature of Anna’s psycho bitchiness, details have become irrelevant. By that point, we’re just anticipating the moment when that expensive-looking kitchen knife gets pulled from its bamboo block, or that luxurious bubble bath fills with blood, or the something bad we know is going to happen to Laura’s beloved cat Miss Havisham actually happens. In that sense, When The Bough Breaks delivers—three times over, in the case of the creepy slowed-down renditions of “Rock-a-bye Baby” implied by the title.
There’s nothing surprising awaiting viewers in the generic aspirational slickness of the film’s visual elements, either. What sets this film apart from its TV-movie counterparts is its production value, and it flirts with pushing boundaries afforded by its big-screen status—although aside from one surprisingly gory shot, we’re talking PG-13 scenes of perfectly coiffed hair cascading down smooth, bare backs. In the absence of any true shocks, though, When The Bough Breaks resembles nothing more than a cheap fast-food burger served on fine china: Tasty, sure, and quite enjoyable in the moment. But once the credits roll and the primal centers of the brain stimulated by guilty pleasures like this one return to normal, all you’ll remember is that it looked prettier than usual.