July 25 (Bloomberg) -- Two summers ago, a 36-year-old suburban New York mom gunned her red minivan the wrong way down a highway and crashed head-on into an SUV. She died along with her 2-year-old daughter, three young nieces and three men in the other vehicle.
After an autopsy revealed that Diane Schuler had chugged the equivalent of 10 shots of alcohol and smoked pot, possibly while behind the wheel, she was vilified as a child murderer.
But the Diane Schuler recalled in Liz Garbus’s troublesome HBO documentary “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane” is no fiend. Family, friends and co-workers describe a devoted “super mom” who rarely drank, held a six-figure job, participated in school activities and made time to iron her kids’ clothes.
Was the autopsy flawed, as husband Daniel Schuler claimed? Did Diane suffer a stroke or some other ailment?
“Aunt Diane” chronicles the uphill efforts of Daniel Schuler and his sister-in-law to prove Diane was sober that Sunday in 2009.
The film treats the husband’s improbable claims seriously and sympathetically, to the point where Garbus occasionally grasps at straws as tenaciously as the widower. Medical records are examined, eyewitness accounts raked over and a road trip timeline constructed. The outcome probably won’t surprise anyone, despite a minor and rather unconvincing twist.
Much is made of a statement by the crash’s sole survivor, Diane’s then 5-year-old son Bryan, that “Mommy’s head hurt. She couldn’t see.” Corroboration also supposedly comes from a mobile-phone conversation that Schuler’s 8-year-old niece, Emma, had with her parents while riding in the car: “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane,” the little girl said.
Astoundingly, the film never discusses the possibility that the children were noticing she was drunk and stoned.
Emma’s parents refused to take part in the documentary about the crash that killed their three daughters. But “Aunt Diane” also gives too little screen time to the SUV victims’ angry relatives, whose ire over Daniel’s denials, inconsistencies and possible motives has been better reported elsewhere. (According to the film, family members of all the victims were offered an unspecified payment to participate.)
Still, “Aunt Diane” is more than cinematic rubbernecking.
The mystery of Schuler’s confounding behavior that day gives way to something genuinely unexpected: a disquieting portrait of a woman who appeared to live a decent, even admirable life, only to leave behind grief beyond comprehension.
“There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane” airs tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2
Crime, Italian style, is looking sharp.
The third and final episode of PBS’s latest “Masterpiece Mystery!” series is the best of the trio.
Based on Michael Dibdin’s mystery novels, the series stars Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen, a police detective whose suits are even sharper than his sleuthing skills.
Though the action is set (gorgeously) in present-day Rome, the show has a chic, retro feel, with cigarette smoke and crisp white shirts. Don Draper would fit right in.
In the finale, “Ratking,” Zen’s investigation into the kidnapping of a wealthy industrialist leads to his secretive family.
The chief suspect: The rich man’s daughter, a sophisticate with a page-boy haircut who looks like an extra from “Cabaret.” If the pacing seems a bit leisurely compared to the American rat-a-tat rhythms of, say, “Law & Order,” at least “Ratking” ambles with style.
“Ratking” airs Sunday on PBS at 9 New York time. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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