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Fish out of water – ‘Serenity’

January 28, 2019
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Usually, our feelings about movies are fairly easy to work out. We liked it or we didn’t like it. We got it or we didn’t get it. And we’re usually able to see why someone else might like or dislike a film even if our own feelings are opposing. Obviously, there’s plenty of gray area, but for the majority of movies, it’s a binary situation – “good” or “bad.”

But every once in a while, you get a movie that is so inexplicable, so bizarrely conceived, so bats—t crazy that the binary is out the window. It isn’t “good,” it isn’t “bad,” it’s “what in God’s name did I just watch?”

“Serenity” very much falls into that third category.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself “Really? I saw the trailer for that movie and it looked pretty straightforward to me.” And you’d be right, as far as that goes. The trailer DOES make it all look pretty straightforward. But rest assured – it is not. At all.

For its first half, “Serenity” is nothing special, a sort of beach noir thriller. The pieces are a little ill-fitting, but it’s all fairly conventional. Meanwhile, the second half of the movie hinges on a Shyamalan-on-acid twist, one of the weirdest narrative turns I’ve seen in a mainstream movie in years. Maybe ever.

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey, “White Boy Rick”) captains a charter fishing boat on the tiny and vaguely-located Plymouth Island. He’s a man with a past, obsessed with catching a gigantic tuna (yes, really) for reasons that are ill-defined. His first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou, “Aquaman”) is worried about him. He’s got a complicated not-really-romantic relationship with Constance (Diane Lane, “Tully”). But every day, in the end, is about the fish.

That changes when his former lover Karen (Anne Hathaway, “Ocean’s Eight”) turns up out of the blue. See, it turns out that back home, Karen’s rich mobbed-up husband Frank (Jason Clarke, “First Man”) abuses both her and her son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh in his debut). She has apparently convinced her husband to come deep-sea fishing so that Dill – who Frank doesn’t know – can kill him.

Meanwhile, a representative for a fishing gear company – a besuited and bespectacled dude named Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong, TV’s “Succession”) – is following Dill around trying to get him to try out a new fish finder.

Of course, Dill has complicated feelings about the idea. She’s offering money – $10 million – and Dill’s boat is leveraged to the hilt. He wants to protect his son, even though he hasn’t seen the kid in years (although father and son can apparently “hear” one another through some sort of strange connection). But his obsession with the giant tuna won’t recede.

And then – the shift. I can’t in good conscience talk about it, because it is as spoiler-y as a spoiler can get. But I desperately want to. Suffice it to say, everything you thought you understood about this movie is proven wrong with one inexplicable reveal. And the rest of the movie plays out in wave after wave of existential weirdness.

“Serenity” is just so STRANGE. Even before they kick the weirdness into high gear, there’s a whole lot of bizarre stuff. No one’s motivations are clear. We have no idea why anyone does what they do. There are logistical questions and narrative gaps throughout. The tone is inconsistent. And none of the relationships make sense. Oh, and this movie wants to make damn sure you get a good eyeful of McConaughey’s behind. Seriously – so much butt. Gratuitous, unnecessary butt.

I have a lot of questions. Anyone who sees this movie and DOESN’T have a lot of questions likely has problems of their own. The notion of Steven Knight – whose filmography is that of a talented filmmaker – pitching this lunatic script and having someone pay for him to make it boggles the mind. And for him to somehow land a cast this talented for a movie this unhinged … I don’t have the words.

Speaking of that cast – one wonders how many of them actually read the damned thing before agreeing to do it. McConaughey drawls and sprawls his way through, substituting swallows of rum and cigarette puffs for actual emoting. He never seems quite sure of what it is he’s supposed to be doing (unless he’s doing fishing stuff and/or showing his butt). Hathaway wanders through her scenes with stunned, empty eyes; she’s going for femme fatale, but she comes off as a robot trying to be sexy after reading a book about body language. There’s zero – and I mean ZERO – chemistry between the two of them.

The rest of the bunch does their thing. Clarke is an underrated performer who deserves better than the 2D d-bag he gets here. Hounsou and Lane are also far too good to be here, though both are pro enough to not let that influence their work (although you occasionally get a whiff of disbelief from Lane).

I still don’t know how to feel about this movie. One minute, I think it’s one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen. The next, I’m considering whether it might be subversively brilliant. I’m leaning toward dumb, but it’s all very confusing. Everything changes in a way that is utterly absurd; it’s the choice of a stupid person trying to be clever.

Serenity now? More like “Serenity” never.

[1 out of 5]

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