Release: Friday, January 25, 2019
Written by: Steven Knight
Directed by: Steven Knight
Starring: Matthew McConaughey; Anne Hathaway; Jason Clarke; Diane Lane; Djimon Hounsou; Jeremy Strong
Distributor: Aviron Pictures
This won’t be an exact science, but I don’t plan to see a movie worse than Serenity the rest of this year. Someone deliver me from the temptation to go on an excessive rant here.
From the writer/director of the brilliantly ergonomic thriller Locke (2014) comes Serenity, a vehicle built for the swaggering, whisky-drankin’ Matthew McConaughey but one that ends up taking almost all the wind out of his sails. This is a really bad movie, a tale of two disparate yet equally dissatisfying halves — the first lulling the audience into a false sense of SERENITY before the second damn well confounds with some seriously clumsy and surprisingly amateurish attempts at high concept fantasy (think The Truman Show relocated to a sun-kissed island). If you’ve never heard of this movie before, it isn’t your fault. Aviron, the film’s distributor, had such little faith in it they decided to go ahead and cancel pretty much all publicity for the picture, a move that angered stars McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, who felt they had been misled in the marketing tactics. Good for them for standing behind their work, but bad for them . . . because of the work they’re standing behind.
The movie takes place on a tropical isle called Plymouth, where Baker Dill (a haggard-looking McConaughey) ekes out an existence as a commercial tuna fisherman who takes his wealthy but obnoxious clientele out to sea for a little hookin’. Onshore he tends to his daily routine with all the enthusiasm of a dead fish, hitting the bars for whisky and the bed with Diane Lane for extra cash, because gas is expensive. And we need gas to take tourists out. (Oh, and she has a lost cat running around that she implores Baker to find — spot the icky symbolism boys and girls!) What keeps Baker goin’ — other than the sweaty sex — is his endless obsession with catching the massive tuna he’s been, I guess, haunted by for years. The crusade to catch has become so epic he’s branded the thing Justice. (And again with the symbolism!)
The first half is a character-building slog through Moby Dick-ian cliché, with Baker’s single-minded pursuit getting in the way of good customer relations — he threatens with a knife during a dispute over who gets to reel Justice in, only for it to escape again. Word gets out around Plymouth very easily and some of the other locals believe Baker’s lost his nerve, as well as his mind. There are threats of calling in a doctor to evaluate him. Baker just believes it is bad luck, which he attributes to his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), who has struggled to get over the death of his wife.
Things become a bit more lively when, out of the black of the night, comes Anne Hathaway’s sultry Karen. She’s Baker’s ex-wife, though she keeps referring to him as John. She has a proposal for “John” that will benefit both of them. Having remarried when he went off to war, she now wants desperately to be rid of the violently abusive jagoff Frank (a pretty cringe-y Jason Clarke) has turned out to be and tells Baker-John she will pay him $10 million in cash if he takes him out on his boat and throws him overboard for the sharks.
That sets up a fairly compelling moral dilemma in practice but one that seems dopey in writing — does he pursue the big fish or help his wife? The biggest impetus for choosing Option 2 is Baker’s obligation to save his child from enduring an embittered life, irrevocably altered by a broken home. It won’t be the multitude of scars Karen has endured through those years that compels him but rather an opportunity to do right by his son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh). Through what appear to be flashbacks we see Patrick confined to his bedroom and locked into a video game that he recodes, trying to escape the misery of his home life. We come to appreciate how close the father and son bond once was, but it turns out they have an even deeper connection, more along the lines of telepathy.
Act Two. Oh goodness, here we go, into the Bermuda Triangle. I am all for ambitious, high-concept, twisty-turvy plots. When they convincingly pull the rug out from under us we get things like The Matrix and Shutter Island. But when the twist isn’t executed well or the entire concept is fundamentally screwy we wind up with the confusing mess that is Serenity, an increasingly heavy-handed allegory involving fate versus free will, decency versus immorality — elements that are initially introduced via obvious Biblical references (the Serenity Prayer is all but spelled out in dialogue) before a thoroughly strange meeting with a suited gentleman (Jeremy Strong) one evening further shakes things up. As it turns out Baker may not be as in control of his life — if it is even a life he leads — as it initially appears, and there are “rules” of a vaguely defined “game” he may have to break if he is to succeed in his endeavor.
I could go into further detail regarding what that game is but what is the point? Those details make even less sense in writing than they do in the film. Let’s leave it at this: the McConaissance is officially over. A few more movies like this and I feel like it’s back to square one again. Serenity is so undercooked and haphazardly constructed it is as if a child wrote it, maybe that kid from Florida is behind it all. Count your blessings if you do not understand that reference.
Moral of the Story: Serenity uses a sexy cast as bait to lure unsuspecting audiences into a plot that becomes infuriatingly nebulous to the point of being unintentionally funny. But this isn’t the kind of so-bad-it’s-good film that can be tossed back with some beers. This is the kind of nonsensical, pretentious claptrap that kills careers.
Running Time: 106 mins.
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