On Jan. 19, Rob Lowe will star in his second Lifetime Original Movie about a lurid true crime, Prosecuting Casey Anthony. In the first, Drew Peterson: Untouchable, which came out in 2012, Lowe played the titular Peterson, an ex-cop who was convicted of the murder of his third wife, and implicated in the death of his fourth. Like many Lifetime movies, Untouchable was a campy–but completely enjoyable–punch line. A Variety reviewer claimed the film is “destined to be remembered forever for the moment of pure kitsch when Drew gazes at [a neighbor] dismissively and says, ‘I’m untouchable, bitch.’”
It was a bit of a head-scratcher when Lowe decided to do his first Lifetime movie. The usual reasons for deciding to take such a trashy role don’t apply to Lowe. He doesn’t need the money (he bought Miramax Studios for $660 million along with his investment partners. He’s doing just fine.) He isn’t hurting for good roles (he’s on the critically acclaimed network sitcom Parks and Recreation, a much more vaunted spot than a one-off basic cable made-for-TV gig). So it was even more shocking when Lowe decided to do the Casey Anthony movie, in which he plays the dogged prosecutor Jeff Ashton, who tries–and fails–to get alleged child-murderer Anthony convicted. The only possible explanation for Lowe’s choice to do a second TV movie camp fest is that it’s truly enjoyable for him. He is bracingly self-aware, and in fact, he might have the best sense of humor in Hollywood.
There have been inklings of this self-deprecating sense of fun in Lowe for years. After finding fame starring in era-defining coming-of-age dramedies (see St. Elmo’s Fire) in the ’80s, Lowe famously had a major career setback in ’88 when a sex tape of him having sex with two women, one of them underage, was leaked. His comedic chops began peeking through his blue-steel good looks in the ’90s, when he staged a comeback by playing pretty boy villains in Tommy Boy and Wayne’s World alongside Chris Farley and Mike Myers respectively.
The next stage of Lowe’s career was a more serious, critically acclaimed one. He received several Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for playing communications director Sam Seaborn in the West Wing. He went from L.A. joke–he made a sex tape before that sort of thing was a career booster–to respectable, mid-career actor spewing Sorkinese in just a few years. He even started making fun of that sex tape on a few Saturday Night Live appearances.
Perhaps after he reached that level of critical acceptance, Lowe felt that he could do whatever he wanted–and what he wanted was to parody himself. First he appeared on the raunchy Showtime series Californication, playing a douchebaggy star actor named Eddie Nero. As Lowe himself told the U.K. Telegraph in 2011 of his role in Californication, “I am going down with the ship on this one. The minute you’re going ‘I took a man in my mouth’ you know you’ve entered uncharted territory.’”
The streak of deprecation continued with Lowe’s well-received memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. In that book, Lowe was charmingly aware of his model looks and the absurdity of his form of stardom. “I would…appear on those shameful lists of ‘hunks.’ (Could there be a more degrading or, frankly, gross word than ‘hunk’? Hunk of what? Hunk of wood? Hunk of cheese? Yikes!),” he wrote. His role on Parks and Recreation also uses Lowe’s perfect form as fodder. His small-town city manager, Chris Traeger, is so hell-bent on personal flawlessness, that he is basically a robot. In one episode where many of his coworkers get the flu, he tells people that he can’t afford to get sick because his finely tuned body is like a microchip: “A grain of sand could destroy it.”
When you think of Lowe’s trajectory, it starts to make sense that he would choose to appear in hilariously low-rent and highly entertaining Lifetime movies. And the truth is, he’s not half bad in Prosecuting Casey Anthony. Even though the dialogue is over-the-top, and the story histrionic, Lowe really sells his role as a crusading prosecutor just trying to get justice for a tragically murdered toddler. The measured pauses when Lowe’s character says things like, “She disposed…of her daughter…in a swamp,” are borderline artful. If this is what’s making Rob Lowe happy, I hope he finds another true crime story to star in forthwith.