January is the month classically known for bad movie releases, and it delivers a whopper of a fish tale.
In movie theaters the calendar opens with a varied assortment of releases. Holdover films from the holiday session are still churning big business, meanwhile studios are expanding exposure of any existing titles that nab awards nominations. This means there is a bit of a vacuum for attention regarding new movies at this time.
Not wanting to risk losing business means traditionally this becomes a dumping ground on the schedule. Movies that are problematic and/or regarded as lost causes get half-hearted promotions and perfunctory releases designed as much to cut losses as they are to earn money. This brings us to “Serenity”, which opened this weekend and is such a high-brow fiasco as to almost exceed any lowly expectations.
The film stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, and was written-directed by Oscar nominee Steven Knight. However it was given scant preview screenings for critics, and was barely promoted. This is the recipe for a failed project, and “Serenity” more than typifies the doomed January release. This thing is so bat-crap crazy that I’ll be delivering spoilers later, to explain how so.
Things Get Un-Fathomable
McConaughey stars as a drunken fisherman named Baker Dill. (Yes, seriously.) On an island off the Florida coast he is washed up in life, living in a cargo container. While barely squeezing out a living guiding tourist fishing charters with his first mate Duke (a wasted Djimon Hounsou) he is forever in a quest to land a giant tuna he has named “Justice”. (Hooray, for metaphors!)
He supplements his income by bedding down the local strumpet, played by Diane Lane. So this is a world where Diane Lane has to pay for sex, and the drunken loser Baker makes it seem like a chore, not a reward. One day his ex-wife Karen (a bottle-blonde Hathaway, in a performance far stiffer than the fishing rods) approaches him in the bar and offers $10 million to take a charter for her new husband Frank (Jason Clarke, of “Chappaquiddick”) and have him reduced to shark chum.
Frank has been abusing Karen, and Baker’s estranged 13 year old son. Throughout these scenes we see Baker pursued by a skinny man in a suit, who always just misses him. By the halfway point we already see leaks in the deck boards, and there is an M. Night Shyamalan-type twist that sends this craft spiraling to the depths.
To start, this is supposedly set in Florida, but geographical errors abound; Baker showers by jumping off of cliffs (non-existent in the flat Sunshine State) while left-side steering wheel autos with foreign plates abound on the Caribbean-looking island. (This was filmed in Mauritius.) While cigarettes have all but become banned by Hollywood Baker smokes enough for the last 10 years worth of movies.
Karen refers to McConaughey as “John”, because he has chosen his new name after his favorite math teacher, named Dylan Baker. Frank is such an over-the-top vulgar villain he requires Karen call him “Daddy”, and he inspects her naked body for any imperfections. Later we see he has whipped her as punishment, which – uh – causes far more lacerations???
Already this neo-noir is off balance as a drama-thriller, but then we get to the start of the third act and we learn what is REALLY happening. Everything becomes both tumultuous, and pointless.
— Going forward this is the spoiler section. If you desire to see this fiasco, skip to the last paragraphs.
Another Writer Who Needs To Learn Coding
We have been seeing indications of a mystical connection between Baker-John and his son, and then Karen announces the son can hear him through his computer screen. As Baker-John is wrestling with what to do he is finally caught up to by the skinny suited man at 2:30 one morning. He is a fishing tackle salesman with a revolutionary fish-finder, but then he announces something to Baker: “I am The Rules.”
Baker-John threatens to slash the guy’s neck at this announcement, (understandably) but he then explains. It turns out everything they are experiencing is actually being programmed by the son. They are not actually real, they are ALL a video game program like The Sims! It is here that anyone watching is excused from the theater.
It leads me to ask: a 13 year old dreams up a VR game, and the best he concocts is a world about charter fishing, and his parents having sex?!
From here on Baker-John grapples with his existence, and we the audience try to figure out just what in the living hell is supposed to be going on. It turns out that the proposal of Karen to kill her husband is actually the son arriving to the decision to kill Frank in real life. Except Baker-John continues on as if he has some free will (he somehow alters program timing and scheduling…??) and other events also defy the kid programming what is happening.
After a windfall of cash Baker-John is set to take Frank on his doomed excursion, except then Duke says he took his cut to hire hit men to wound Frank so he couldn’t fish — annnnnnd, why would the son program this?! And why would there be an interlude when Baker-John could actually kill off The Rules of the game?! And after cajoling Frank onto the charter why have an additional character show up on board as a witness, now jeopardizing the plot to kill him?!
These are questions we are not allowed to ask. There are stretches where we are led to question if Baker-John is merely having drunken hallucinations about the prospect he is in a video game, but we already have been told that is the case, and we actually see the kid programming the game. There is no question from our perspective. By this stage it seems as if the teenaged son and the scriptwriter Knight are battling each other over the storyline.
No matter who wins, the story becomes the loser. Even after we learn Baker died in Iraq he is still a “live” being, now a character in his son’s retreating consciousness. This is shown by his placing a call to the payphone on the island.
This flop of a film is a monumental misfire, and it is one that needs to be seen. There is so much effort at play, but it is all hinged on such a contrived twist of a premise that nothing at all is as it appears and, also, nothing at all matters. Any plot holes or factual errors can be excused away as “well, it was simply the creation of a teenaager’s fantasy”, but that then means NOTHING has any weight, nor import.
While in the market for easy metaphors, Steven Knight thought he was landing a monster of a dramatic catch. Instead he lets the big one get away and, like his character Baker, he seems to have lost it in a drunken haze. And there is little wonder why the studio elected to simply cut bait, and toss this non-trophy catch over the transom in January.
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