Serious Moonlight Dir. Cheryl Hines

[Magnolia Pictures; 2009]

No screen performance since Holly Hunter's Oscar-winning portrayal of the mute woman in The Piano has seemed harder to pull off than Meg Ryan's Louise in Serious Moonlight, the woefully far-fetched comedy penned by late indie darling Adrienne Shelly and directed by Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines. Playing a high-powered yuppie lawyer whose callow husband Ian (Timothy Hutton) plans to leave her for his accountant's young secretary Sara (Kristen Bell), Louise repeatedly shifts from psychotically manipulative to empathetic to just plain pitiable to level-headed, and then right back to psychotic again. Her soft, plucky features, coupled with a natural fondness for tart sarcasm, can lend energy and insight to any character, even one this maddeningly inconsistent. Unfortunately, the film itself is as schizophrenic as her character, and all the flailing in the world can't upright a sinking ship.

It's Shelly's legacy, however, that is most damaged by this deranged, botched hybrid of The War of the Roses and Misery. In directing Waitress, the 2007 film released shortly after her harrowing murder, Shelly imbued the slight, fairy-tale story with gently biting humor, an authentic sense of place with lush cinematography, all qualities decidedly lacking from Serious Moonlight. The setup is at once visually claustrophobic and tonally frantic, as though someone had meddled with its script to create such confusion.

A few of Shelly's arch witticisms surface as Louise, having twice knocked Ian out cold with ceramic pots and duct-taped him to a chair and later a toilet, tries strenuously to win his love back. ("She's your accountant's secretary? I've met her? God, she's so unmemorable!" Louise barks at Ian. "Not to a man," he fires back.)

But such exchanges, funny as they are at times, also underscore the film's nagging problem: the sagest lines are given to Ian, so we wind up siding with him even though he's a lying cheat with little remorse about his misdoings. But given that he's defenseless anyway, forced to partake in Louise's ill-advised schemes (to provoke nostalgic sentiment, for instance, she bakes him his favorite cookies, then presents a slideshow of their wedding), we agree with his every dismissal of her tactics as sad and pathetic, his smug explanations for straying. We keep waiting for him to chew his way out and escape from this clearly doomed marriage, but it's clear that the filmmakers want Louise to get her way, that they actually believe dead feelings can be perversely guilt-tripped back to life.

That very attitude already lends the whole film a sick, maladjusted air, but Serious Moonlight wades into needlessly misanthropic territory with the arrival of Todd (Justin Long), a low-life delinquent who breaks into Ian and Louise's mansion. In quick succession, Todd steals their belongings, clobbers Ian while scolding him about his infidelity, then knocks Louise out and, as she lies unconscious on the bathroom floor, proceeds to fondle her breasts.

Shifting capriciously between merciless torment and doling out sage, scolding advice, Todd is a nice formal break for Long, who usually plays earnest milquetoasts, and if not for the blatant misogyny he is meant to portray, the character could have mirrored Denis Leary's in The Ref, a criminal angrily counseling an unhappy couple towards reconciliation. As it turns out, Todd helps Ian and Louise more inadvertently, as Ian, in seeing Louise harassed and in pain, is inspired to redeem himself. But Long's violent pervert is so unpleasantly over-the-top that, by making him the catalyst of the film's contrived happy ending, Hines, Shelly, and crew leave a pervading aura of ugliness over an already ugly film.

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