I was so looking forward to Serenity when the first trailer came out. As a fan of the film noir genre, and especially the neo-noir subgenre, the promise of a sexy noir thriller starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, written and directed by the man behind the phenomenal Locke was too good to be true. And that trailer was truly remarkable to look at – taut, bright, and illuminating. So to say I’m disappointed in the final result is an understatement. However, it’s not just that this film isn’t good, or isn’t really a noir. This film goes so far off the rails, it’s often mind-boggling to witness. For that, I am of two minds: I am disappointed that Serenity isn’t the film its general premise promised it to be, but I am tickled pink that a film this dumb, this insane, and this…everything could even be made.
Baker Dill (McConaughey, whose character name is the least dumb thing about this movie) is a fisher Plymouth Island, somewhere off the Florida coast. Obsessed with catching a massive tuna that he’s named Justice, he funds his failing business by moonlighting as a gigolo for the richest woman on the island, Constance (Diane Lane). However, things change when Baker’s ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) shows up with a proposition for him: if he takes her abusive current husband Frank (Jason Clarke) out to sea and makes sure he doesn’t return. Torn between a moral code, a desire to delve into his mysterious past, and a mysterious man with a briefcase (Jeremy Strong), Baker Dill finds himself grappling with forces that he – and the audience – may not fully understand.
I’ll address this fact up front, and talk about it a bit more in the next paragraph, but we need to talk about the twist. A large reason that this film doesn’t work (or does, depending on how you look at it), is an insane twist that comes 2/3 into the film’s run. I’m not going to spoil it here, because like Hereditary and Life Itself before it, the moment in question is so ludicrous that it has to be seen to be believed. But it does hinder my ability to break down the plot effectively to explain why this film is so unequivocally terrible. So I will do my best to cover the multitude of other reasons that Serenity is the next hilarious cinematic atrocity, starting with the screenplay. Now, I want to make this clear up front: Steven Knight is a wonderful writer. From Amazing Grace to Eastern Promises to Locke, Knight is a director who takes risks and can turn a phrase. But his attempt here to revive the sexy thriller genre that gave us Double Indemnity, Body Heat, and Basic Instinct is such an epic swing-and-a-miss that it more closely resembles “Casey At The Bat.” I mean, look no further than the opening sequence, where Matthew McConaughey threatens to kill a man over a tuna the size of a shark – a tuna that he’s named “Justice,” for some insane reason. That’s how the movie starts. And it only gets dumber from there. Each scene seems like a satire of a sexy thriller, rapidly growing dumber as the film, including a few random asides that heavily imply that the tuna killed Baker Dill’s son (that’s not the twist, but holy sh*t what an insane implication). From a mysterious past in the Iraq War to an unexplored love triangle, the film basically works as a literal interpretation of improv – it constantly introduces a bad idea, then proceeds to “Yes And” itself worse and worse. Then there’s the actual plan, the most important element of a noir. Unlike Double Indemnity or Basic Instinct, where every element of the scheme is planned to the letter, and the fun comes from discovering what tiny element will unravel the mystery, the plan in Serenity is truly awful. There are about 10,000 ways for things to go wrong, from the multitudes of witnesses to the fact that the characters previously knew each other to the lack of alibis to the fact that Hathaway would immediately be the primary suspect, based on how shady she is throughout. Without a great plan, a noir doesn’t have the legs to stand on, and it immediately undercuts the film’s believability. And then there’s the dialogue, which may be the funniest case of terrible writing this side of The Room. Allow me to provide a list of some of my favorite lines in this movie, ranging from the on-the-nose clichés to the faux-clever wordplay to the just plain hilarious:
“Mr. Baker Dill, I am awfully fond of the way you say hello.” – Diane Lane, spoken after she and McConaughey have an affair.
Baker Dill: “How’d you even find me?”
Karen: “Ever hear of…FACEBOOK?!?”
“We’re both destroyed, right, both damaged. But damaged in different places.” – Karen, being incredibly deep.
Jeremy Strong as Reid Miller: “I am the Rules.”
Baker Dill: “What?”
Reid Miller: “Uh…those are the rules?”
And my personal favorite:
Reid Miller (Looks at watch): “There’s something wrong. There appears to be a 20-second discrepancy in my schedule.”
However, I think the most damning detail about this massive failure isn’t just the bad dialogue, or the bad plot, or the bad scheme. It’s the fact that all of these elements exist, and yet the film still has the audacity to think of itself as smart. In spite of the hokey dialogue and the ham-fisted plot devices, Steven Knight still thinks he’s the next Billy Wilder or Dashiell Hammett. And that fact would be sickening if it wasn’t so g*ddamn funny.
Of course, a bad script will only get you so far in a So-Bad-It’s Good Movie. Like The Garbage Pail Kids, Troll 2, or Catwoman, a film needs to be poorly constructed across the board in order to earn that title. Thankfully (or unfortunately; again, it depends on how you look at it), Serenity is up to the challenge. And I’m not just referring to the fact that this film is in no way a noir, no matter how hard it tries to convince us that it is. I’m referring to the actual execution of the fundamentals, like editing and cinematography. The editing in Serenity is hilariously sloppy, resembling Bohemian Rhapsody and Taken 3 in terms of needless, pointless hard cuts. And in terms of the cinematography, there is a nonsensical, unexplained decision to introduce every character with a ridiculously over-the-top 360-degree quick zoom. It’s pretty hilarious when we first see it used on Anne Hathaway, but as the film continues using it a total of five more times, each one becomes more and more jaw dropping. The film’s flaws don’t stop there. The ADR is so horrendous the words often don’t meet the characters’ mouths. The sex scenes are some of the unsexiest this side of Tommy Wiseau and Juliette Danielle. There are weird storytelling decisions throughout, like Matthew McConaughey “showering” by stripping naked and walking off a cliff, or an implication that Baker and his son can talk through the water (again, not the twist, but my God what a weird choice). The editing and storytelling is so sloppy, it feels like it should be wrapping up before you realize, “Holy sh*t I’m only a half hour in” (true story). And then there’s the twist. My God, the twist. Now, I will be up front with you that I have a weird proclivity for predicting outlandish twists like this, so I somehow managed to figure out where this film was going long before the film reveals its cards. But even as I managed to put two and two together, I still spent much of the first half in shock, thinking to myself, “No. No way. There’s no way they’re gonna do that. It’s too stupid.” So I can’t imagine what someone who doesn’t possess this curse of mine would feel seeing the revelation. It is just so dumb and so over-the-top, it has to be seen to be believed. And even better, watching it unfold over the rest of the film is truly hilarious to watch. This film is, in both set-up and execution, a complete mess.
As for the acting, I don’t have too much to say. Neither McConaughey or Hathaway are bad, by any means, but their acting is so stilted and boring that it doesn’t really elevate the story in any way. Still, better to be average in a bad film than to wholeheartedly belly flop like the rest of this ensemble. Diane Lane spends the entire movie earnestly delivering terrible lines and weirdly watching people through windows. Djimon Hounsou shows up to play the same cliché he’s portrayed in the past ten years of his career, all bundled into one. Jason Clarke shows up to make some choices, and while they are almost all terrible, I do applaud him for committing to his role as Barely-One-Dimensional-Bad-Guy. And then there’s Jeremy Strong. All I can say about Strong’s performance is HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! My God, this is a performance for the ages. Don’t get me wrong, I love Strong as an actor. He’s one of the best parts of The Big Short, Selma, and Succession. However, his performance here, as a weird, OCD-ridden stick-in-the-mud is so bad, so poorly written, and so off-the-mark, that it belongs in a museum next to Troll 2’s Darren Ewing. I can’t tell if he was trying to play the character as Asperger’s Adjacent or not, but I’m pretty sure that community would be (and should be) rightfully offended if it wasn’t so laughable. Honestly, I would recommend this movie based on this performance alone.
Serenity is a masterpiece of sh*t that needs to be seen to be believed. I saw it at 11:00 am on a Monday with three people in the audience, and I’ve gotta tell you, I have never been to a movie before where an audience who has never met before leaves giggling and joking with each other, especially not for a hard thriller. This movie provides a communal experience of “What the f*ck did we just watch?” that will absolutely provide you laughs and joy, just not in the way the filmmakers intended. This is a strange, dumb little film that doesn’t work on any level – philosophically, intellectually, technically, or narratively, and if you ever do see it, I hope it’s under the right circumstances: drunk with friends, laughing your ass off.