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Serenity (2019)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Serenity Wow!"
4 stars

When I watch the films that I review, I either view them in an exclusive screening room with my critical colleagues, at word-of-mouth screenings with audiences brought in via giveaways and contests or at home by computer link. The screening of “Serenity” happened to take place in the screening room—my preferred venue in most cases—but when it was all over, I found myself kind of wishing that I had seen it with a crowd of regular moviegoers, just to see how they reacted to the genuinely insane plot developments that it contains. To paraphrase to single funniest line in cinema history, this is one nutty movie—a work so crazy and audacious and screwy that people will either regard it as some kind of crackpot masterpiece or as one of the worst movies ever made. And yet, to even hint at what makes it so bizarre would probably ruin a number of its surprises and if there is any chance of someone enjoying it—as I ultimately (and perhaps foolishly) did—it is by going into it knowing as little about it as humanly possible. In fact, I have already said too much and if you have any interest in seeing it at all, you should set this review aside until after you see it for yourself. (Something tells me that you had better do that quick because I suspect the CinemaScore rating on this one is going to make “mother!” look like a crowd-pleaser by comparison.)

Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker, a man with a past who has wound up on Plymouth Island, a reasonably bucolic island paradise that is small enough that everyone there seems to know everyone else’s business, oftentimes before they know it themselves. Baker ostensibly makes his living as the captain of his own fishing boat but is not especially successful at it, especially since he tends to push actual cash business aside—sometimes in the middle of an actual job—to continue his pursuit of a giant tuna fish that he has been hunting for as long as he can recall but which others are convinced is merely a figment of his imagination. When the coffers are low, he sleeps with the island’s requisite rich older woman (Diane Lane) for money but even then, he is still unable to pay his sole employee, Duke (Djimon Hounsou). In short, Baker’s life is already a mess and when he looks up from his drink at the local bar one night and sees Karen (Anne Hathaway), his childhood sweetheart, ex-wife and the mother of Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), the super-smart son he never gets to see, standing there, he instinctually knows that it is about to get a lot messier.

Not surprisingly, Karen has both a story to tell and a proposal to make. It seems that after leaving Baker over ten years ago, she remarried, this time to Frank (Jason Clarke), a rich and abusive brute who beats her relentlessly, has begun threatening Patrick and is powerful enough to find and destroy the both of them if they even dream of leaving him. Karen has been plotting, however, and has come up with a seemingly foolproof scheme. Frank will be arriving in Plymouth Island the next day and she wants to arrange for Baker to take him out on his boat for a day of tuna fishing where, who knows, maybe her husband will just happen to fall overboard and drown in a tragic “accident.” In exchange for this small request, Karen will give Baker ten million dollars. At first, Baker naturally refuses but the fates, not to mention some remaining lingering affection for Karen and his genuine love for his son, seem to conspire to get him on that boat with Frank, who turns out to be even more appalling than advertised.

At this point, many of you probably think that you know where this is all going and some may even be thinking that I have given away far too much of the plot as is. What we have here, of course, is a classic film noir setup—it may be set amid sun-kissed beaches instead of dark alleys but there are so many other familiar tropes of the genre on display that noir buffs could amuse themselves by checking them off and seeing who can find the most. These elements are so ingrained into the collective moviegoing experience that we get the sense that if one of the characters on the screen somehow forgot one of their lines, audience members could cue them on what to say. This is all staged and executed efficiently enough by writer-director Steven Knight but it does seem a bit strange that the man responsible for such far more ambitious projects as “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises” and “Locke” would be behind a film that, save for a couple of adjustments here and there, could have easily been a programer cranked out by RKO back in the Forties. Suffice it to say, it turns out that he does have something else on his mind after all and the story soon shifts in ways that even those unusually attuned to potential plot twists and turns will almost certainly never see coming.

The shift is so audacious, in fact, that it will prove to be the dividing point between those willing to embrace the weirdness to come and those who will dismiss it as the silliest goddamn thing that they have seen in their lives. While I can fully understand the thinking of those falling into the latter category, I have to admit that I sort of liked “Serenity” primarily for its sheer lunacy. Too many movies these days are so ritualized and formulaic that it feels as if they are being run on autopilot—most people could pass a test on what happens during them even before the opening credits begin to roll. By comparison, “Serenity” is pretty much swinging for the fences every moment that it is on screen and even if it doesn’t always connect, watching it as it attempts to do is pretty entertaining all by itself. I enjoyed the sensation of not having any idea of where the story was going at a certain point and when all the cards were finally revealed at the end, I admired Knight for not only creating something so wild and strange but for somehow getting someone to finance the whole endeavor. I also enjoyed the performances by McConaughey and Hathaway, which are a little more complicated than they might seem at first because they are playing roles that frankly lean more to caricatures than characters and which somehow manage to hit just the right note. If there is one quibble along these lines, it would be that Diane Lane is too often cast to the side as the older sexpot but even that sort of makes sense when all is said and done.

Look, I am fully aware that most people forking over money to see “Serenity” will be doing so in the hopes of seeing a sexy, sweaty noir exercise with McConaughey, Hathaway and Lane huffing and puffing and doing each other wrong. I am also fully aware that most of those viewers are going to come away from it feeling confused and/or annoyed by what they have just seen. And yet, there are those moviegoers out there who actually enjoy having their expectations subverted by a film that seems to offer the promise of the familiar before taking viewers on an increasingly wild ride. It may be strange in parts and borderline insane in other but I can’t say that I was ever bored watching it and I certainly had more fun with its absurdities than I have with a lot of the more ostensibly serious-minded movies of late. “Serenity” is nuts—deeply and innately nuts from beginning to end—but to these eyes, it is at least the right kind of nuts.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32282&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/24/19 12:03:51
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User Comments

7/07/19 Langano Ambitious attempt but ultimately unsatisfying. 3 stars
1/25/19 Bob Dog Glad to see a solid mindfuck movie - - we need more in this genre! 5 stars
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