Directed by Cheryl Hines
The romantic comedy’s entertainment value stems from the comforts offered by its predictability, idealism and unambiguous sympathies. It’s easy to distinguish the “bad” guys from the “good.” People act selfishly and do crazy things, but are ultimately forgiven—after all, they’re in love. As the script blithely carries us to a satisfying conclusion, we never have to worry whether things will work out for the main characters. And when it’s all over, we rise from our seats as if waking from an afternoon nap, ready move on to something else, still feeling happily numb.
Serious Moonlight would seem to fit this mold, but it fails to offer any of the genre’s usual pleasures. Meg Ryan plays Louise, a ball-breaking Manhattan lawyer who arrives at the country house she shares with her husband Ian (Timothy Hutton) to find a trail of rose petals leading to the bedroom. Unfortunately for Louise, Ian’s romantic gesture was meant for another, younger woman; she interrupts him while he is writing Louise a Dear Jane letter. Unwilling to give up so easily on their marriage, she knocks Ian unconscious with a flowerpot, duct tapes him to a chair, and refuses to free him until he falls back in love with her. This setup might promise a round of silliness and a neatly tied-up conclusion, except for a few problems. For starters, Ian is a monster of a husband. His anger at Louise for ruining his getaway plan is frightening and he spews really hateful, awkward potshots at her, like “you’re ugly.” It’s hard to root for Louise to reunite with such a mean and selfish man.
Louise is hard to root for in general. Her plan, which at first seemed like a bout of lighthearted hysterics, quickly morphs into a not-kidding hostage situation: she eventually duct-tapes Ian to a toilet with his pants around his ankles. While Ian pumps out grotesque remarks and Louise flits around in full makeup and an evening gown, the gardener (Justin Long) shows up and courts a few precious giggles (as Justin Long is wont to do). But soon, we discover that he too is a despicable human being as he robs the couple’s electronics, bashes Ian’s face and molests an unconscious Louise. (I still haven’t been able to shake the image of Justin Long cupping Meg Ryan’s boob.)
Beneath the film’s odious characters and surprising brutality, you can see glimmers of a decent movie. Given the talent involved, it should have been better: Serious Moonlight was written by the late Adrienne Shelley, who wrote and directed Waitress, an incredibly sweet film received just about as well as an indie film can be. It’s also the directorial debut of Cheryl Hines, who starred in Waitress and plays Larry David’s wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm. And yet in Serious Moonlight, moments of comedy are rare and moments of romance are even rarer. It’s hard to see the good in characters this grating and it’s hard to forgive them for being mean and spiteful. Things eventually work out between Ian and Louise, as we knew they would. But it’s hard to see that as a happy ending.
Opens December 4