There are bad movies and there are bad movies, the distinction being that the one is purely torturous to watch whereas the other has the alchemic ability to actually bring us great pleasure. To transmute movie-making stool into movie-watching gold. It’s observed in the difference between Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage; the line in the sand dividing Yoga Hosers and The Snowman. They’re all bad but some are bad enough to double back and turn sour to sweet.
Bad movies come in all different varieties and flavors. Manifesting a great-to-bad parabola explains our enjoyment: a well-made great film is obviously great for reasons easy to describe but a movie can also be so bad as to start climbing the curve again and achieve its own kind of shitty greatness. This shite-spectrum helps explain the cult affinity for movies that are “so bad they’re good”, the reason why people to this day attend midnight showings of The Room, buzzing with anticipation and catcalling along with Tom Wiseau’s disasterpiece. There’s an undeniable joyousness seeing a movie crash and burn so spectacularly that not even the best comedies can match in laugh output, and by that virtue, Serenity may just be a stroke of brilliance.
Starring not one but two Academy Award winners, Serenity wastes almost no time diving into the deep end of the terrible pool. Matthew McConaughey (completely untethered from the McConaissance at this point) is Baker Dill, a bug-eyed boat captain who drinks like a fish and can’t keep up with bills. To drill this point home, an early scene peeks Dill sleeping with Diane Lane for, what else, gas money. McConaughey’s posterior is featured early and often. A post-coital Dill muses, “I’m a hooker who can’t afford hooks.” Bravo screenwriter/director Steven Knight (Locke), bravo.
The go-for-broke script starts the action on a boat called Serenity, Knight’s camera breaching out of the water with a silly kaboom, a simulated weightless whale, zooming overhead to get a top-down view of the boat below. Knight uses dated camera tricks of the late 90s and early 2000s, immediately throwing us for a loop as to what we’re watching, who this is for, and what in the hell it’s about. Later, he’ll whip the camera around characters in a 360 spin like he’s auditioning for a gig as a flashy music video director, for no apparent thematic or narrative purpose at all. It all feels as if Knight is quite literally experimenting as he goes, random directorial tactics tossed in and then quickly abandoned. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s all rather disorienting and bizarre. But it’s just setting the table for how deranged everything will become.
In that very first scene, Dill hooks a giant CGI bluetuna that he’s named, wait for it, “Justice”, pulls a knife on paying customers because he wants to reel in Justice himself (“It’s him, it’s the one!”), and soaks himself to the bone – like he’s fresh-out-of-a-monsoon-wet, folks – through the labor of his reeling. Justice manages to elude him again and Dill’s back sleeping with Diane Lane for funding for another day’s fishing.
Roger Ebert once famously mused, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it”. Serenity succeeds (or fails; or both) by both being insane in form and function. The plot as it’s being presented to unsuspecting audiences entails a drunken boat captain beseeched by a long lost love and mother of his child (Anne Hathaway, fully aware of exactly what kind of movie she’s trapped in) to murder her abusive husband (Jason Clarke, amazingly over-the-top) and make it look like a fishing accident. But that’s only half the equation, as Serenity’s takes a midpoint hard left that manages to make everything that came before it look tame and conventional in contrast to what is to come.
We’ve seen sexually-charged thrillers before but none that focus so much on an uncomfortably sexual tension between a father and his son. Like Dill speaking telepathically to his son by rubbing circles of spilled water (“Patrick? Are you there?”) or feature a two-minute underwater sequence where a buns-out McConaughey (his crotch edited into a Ken Doll-esque raised mound) floats underwater staring into the eyes of his (fully adolescent) son. Game, set, match, Fifty Shades. The bar has been raised.
There’s countless other things that had me scratching my head to a bloody nub, like the fact that everyone knows everything about everyone on Plymouth Island, including secret details that no-one could possibly know (“They say that man pulled $10,000 out of the ATM and is planning to offer it all to you!”); or why there’s a small man in an old business suit constantly chasing Dill around the island but always getting there just a moment too late (“It’s like there’s a glitch”); or how Dill can drink two entire bottles of rum and then drive a car with little to no problems; or how a stepfather would have absolutely no inkling that he’s been tricked into commissioning his wife’s ex (he’s never seen a photo or heard any kind of physical description of Dill?); but the Shamalan-esque twists and turns of the second half erase these questions because the scale of the bonkers-ness is blown up to such supreme degree that we almost forgot about the minor logic gaps that precede them.
On the one hand, Serenity is a blathering epic fail – from a purely technical viewpoint it’s a poorly directed abortion of a film where you can almost see the cast and crew physically throwing their hands up and admitting defeat – but it’s also one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies I’ve seen in years and a true wonder of FailMovie to behold. Yes, there’s too much Matthew McConaughey standing in a poorly framed field spewing wordy psycho babble to the audience and yes, the script makes absolutely no sense and yes, the twist is one of the craziest things that’s been allowed to reach the screen this decade (especially with this caliber of talent attached) and yes, Steven Knight focuses his camera on McConaughey’s tush for a rather uncomfortable amount of screentime but Serenity boldly goes where movies shouldn’t go and digs deeper and deeper and deeper into that should-be-unknowable nothingness before just kinda giving up, getting hammered, shrugging and offering a half-hearted “That’s Chinatown”-type wrap-up that makes Interstellar’s nonsense look Pulitzer Prize worthy. I didn’t know if I should laugh, scream, or slow clap. So I did a little of each.
CONCLUSION: Unexplainable ‘Serenity’ is a best-worst movie scenario, a beyond-trashy neo-noir concept thriller featuring award-winning performers going haywire as they labor to make sense of a psycho babble script and utterly bizarre directorial choices. It’s awful in the most enjoyable way possible.
F (but also an A)
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