From the so-bad-you-kinda-have-to-see-it file: 'Serenity'
“Serenity” sure is Something Else, and that Something Else is mostly Not Good. This is a strange, jaw-dropper of a story, kind of a sun-soaked, tropical-seaside noir with a half-baked, guffaw-inducing twist recalling M. Night Shyamalan’s most underwhelming pseudo-clever narrative rug-yanking. It’s so miscalculated, it’s amusing, even entertaining, to see it add two and two and come up with a zillion. Or negative-three. It could go either way, frankly.
Suffice to say, I can’t indulge too many specifics without playing spoiler. I’ll let you turn over that rock and discover the baffling, idiotic truth for yourselves.
Matthew McConaughey headlines “Serenity,” playing Baker Dill, a professional fisherman who’s 85 percent gristle and 15 percent hardhead. He’s utterly obsessed with snagging one specific tuna, roughly the size of a Smart Car. He’s like Captain Ahab with a finely bronzed and toned, and therefore frequently exposed, gluteus. It’s hot on the fictional island of Plymouth, where Dill is part of such a small community, all the residents know each other’s business, and can therefore intuit all the plot points necessary to keep the insanity train on the track -- before it derails spectacularly.
Dill charters his boat, the Serenity, for fishing excursions for lunkheaded tourists. In the film’s opening scenes, the megatuna latches onto the line belonging to one of Dill’s paying customers. Dill senses that it’s the Big ‘Un, and snatches a potential prize from the greasy hands of a drunken slob who doesn’t take kindly to another man grabbing his rod. But Dill, so sweaty and muscular and sweaty and loco, threatens the guy with a knife. Somewhat critical, but also somewhat complicit in Dill’s mania is his first mate, Duke, a Spiritual Black Man stereotype played by Djimon Hounsou, taking a role that seems made for Morgan Freeman to sleepwalk through.
When the titan tuna inevitably becomes the one that got away (again), Dill heads back to shore and swills rum from the bottle, or visits Constance (Diane Lane, in a thankless role) for a romp in the sheets, or goes home to his sad shipping container of a house on a cliff ledge overlooking the ocean, where he talks to himself a lot, often mumbling about his estranged son, shown in cutaway scenes playing video games in a dark bedroom.
Until. One day. Is it a fateful day? Would I be writing such short sentences if it wasn’t? Karen walks into the local watering hole Dill frequents. Karen, his ex, the mother of his son. She’s played by Anne Hathaway, trying too hard to be a husky-voiced noir temptress, all dolled up but with no place to go except home to her cruel, abusive, overwrought cartoon-villain homunculus of a husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Frank is not nice to Dill’s boy, which is incentive for Dill to consider Karen’s offer of a smoldering $10 million to take the lout on a fishing excursion and feed him to the eels and sea cucumbers, or the kraken itself -- whatever happens to be passing by and hungry.
McConaughey wide-eyes it through the whole movie, like a cat on a midnight prowl (for tuna? Yep, for tuna). He amplifies the character’s broadest, roughest traits with all the subtlety of a whale farting the Chicken of the Sea commercial jingle. Give the role to an eccentric like Nicolas Cage, and he’d turn some of this crap into gold, but here, Dill is just another minute variation of the brashly confident McConaughey persona we know too well (you can see far better versions of it in “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Mud”). Dill is an Iraq War veteran who’s clearly struggling with a demon inside that noggin, but it’s hard to gain an empathetic foothold when said demon is symbolized by a colossal casserole dish -- you’ll need a whole case of cream of mushroom soup for this one, baby -- and he keeps muttering ridiculous things about his need to “catch the fish in my head.”
Curiously, this harebrained film is from writer and director Steven Knight, who helmed the taut and suspenseful “Locke,” created credible TV series “Taboo” and “Peaky Blinders,” and wrote strong screenplays for “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things.” He’s proven himself fluent in telling smart, gritty, conceptually strong stories with aptitude and style, but “Serenity” is a misstep into unintentional camp. To use one of the screenplay’s many hammer-on-skull fishing metaphors (shall I mention the scene where Dill wields his really big pole while Karen stands by?), it’s almost as if Knight is confident he’s reeling in a great white shark, when it’s actually a minnow. A dead minnow. A dead minnow with one eye plucked out.
My relatively minimal description and summary doesn’t do the film justice. It’s colorful and literary in all the most wrongheaded, overwrought ways. There’s a recurring motif of an ominous bird flying above the Serenity; some goings-on about Constance’s wandering black cat; a local radio man who always seems to say things solely intended for Dill; and a prim fellow in a suit (Jeremy Strong), who’s trying to catch up with Dill and keeps missing him, muttering cryptic nonsense about keeping on schedule. Feel free to chase such quasi-symbolic bait right into the tuna’s mouth and into the net and on the ship and under the butcher’s knife and through the processing machine and into the can headed for the Costco shelf, for it serves a story so bent on being profound, it becomes laughable. This movie sure has a big fish in its head, and there’s plenty of water in there to keep it alive.
MPAA rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Djimon Hounsou, Diane Lane
Director: Steven Knight
Run time: 106 minutes