' ' Cinema Romantico: Serenity

Tuesday, June 11, 2019


“Serenity”, released this past January to near-unanimous WTF? thumbs-downs, finds its leading man, Matthew McConaughey, firmly in the glorious post-McConaissance landscape, both totally attuned to the parodies of him and not so much transcending them as embracing with them with such wonky pep that he simultaneously makes you understand why they exist in the first place and why no parody of him is as good, never mind as funny, as the real thing. Here he is Baker Dill, deep sea fisherman on a fictional Floridian island called Plymouth, tormented by an elusive tuna, which just sounds funnier than elusive marlin, which was the fish that evaded Santiago in “The Old Man and the Sea” and which “Serenity” sort of resembles, at least at first, gradually evolving (or: devolving) into “2001” penned by Hemingway, or something, an absurd-sounding amalgam that McConaughey nevertheless lends a crazed kind of credence, suggesting his “Mud” character if he never left the island and became spiritually sunburnt.

No actorly task goes unnoticed by McConaughey, squinting at the sky, scribbling coordinates, and manning a deep sea reel with equal ferocious commitment; when he tells a couple rich, drunk tourists who have rented his boat to sit back down when it’s time to try and catch fish you can tell in McConaughey’s unhinged expression that this stems not from safety protocol but trying to even the score with the sea. Even when he’s driving drunk he acts like a drunk guy trying to sober himself up while staying on the road. That might sound like nothing, but it as emerges as sort of incongruous with the screenplay in question, which becomes the movie’s downfall and saving grace, a leading man who, seemingly unbeknownst to writer/director Steven Knight, has broken his movie’s code.

Throughout we can tell the story is not so simple, and not just because of McConaughey. If the island is small and slow, where everyone knows everyone and “Old Wes” never leaves his table at the island’s lone bar, the editing never harmonizes with such a seeming life of leisure, opting for frequent cuts even in the simplest scenes, suggesting something weighing on Baker’s mind beyond his mysterious underwater opponent. Even when he lays up at nights, smoking, the island’s lighthouse shines its beam through his open windows, suggesting the beams of light eerily illuminating Rick Deckard’s apartment in “Blade Runner”, evoking neo-noir.

Indeed, “Serenity” truly begins its long strange trip to haywire when Baker’s ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears, suffering abuse at the hands of her new husband (Jason Clarke) for whom she has planned a fishing trip to Plymouth with emergent “Double Indemnity”-ish intentions. This ties back to her and Baker’s son, seen in isolated shots locked in his room playing video games, and who can apparently converse with his father, and father with son, through some sort of mystical connection never exactly defined but seen anyway. And this hints at The Big Twist.

Hathaway hints at it too, her sultry introduction involving a line reading so phonily femme fatale I laughed out loud. That phoniness permeates her entire performance, as if she’s taking her cues from someone else, a sensation connected to The Big Twist, one which is, without giving it away, a little underhanded in how it can be used to forgive any aesthetic sins as the whole point, insulting in how it lets the overriding implications of physical abuse simply slide and even a bit unpleasant in how it re-contextualizes preceding scenes, like a steamy scene between Baker and Karen in his boat cabin where his kiss-off line metamorphoses in retrospect from crudely comical to ewwwww, gross!

What’s worse, the twist isn’t all that flabbergasting, not merely telegraphed early and often but born of a thousand Big Twists before it. In the end, it’s got nothing on McConaughey anyway. He plays the climactic beach-set exposition scene not with an A ha! glimmer but a fatalistic edge, like he’s already advanced multiple levels beyond where the out-of-place character he’s conversing with is, level being a word I use with extreme intent. Because while “Serenity” proves overly concerned with who is playing God to make us go “Whoa”, McConaughey’s already left all that Big Twist bunk behind; he is the whoa. He’s not playing God; brother, he’s speaking to God.

No comments: