Serenity review – the year's first gloriously bad movie is here

Matthew McConaughey is a gigolo/fishing boat captain alongside Anne Hathaway in a thrillingly awful thriller with one of the most ill-conceived twists in recent history

Matthew McConaughey in Serenity.
Matthew McConaughey in Serenity. Photograph: Graham Bartholomew/AP
Matthew McConaughey in Serenity. Photograph: Graham Bartholomew/AP

Last modified on Thu 28 Feb 2019 07.14 EST

If January could be made an adjective – that is, if the trait of being released in the month of January could be assigned a set of aesthetic and thematic criteria – then I would venture that Serenity may be the single most January movie ever made.

The typical January movie has been orphaned by a studio with little faith in its earning potential, banished to the post-holiday moviegoing lull, where riskier strains of badness may freely flourish without attracting too much public attention. (There are also traces of January in late August, after summer movie season has taken its dying breaths.) Serenity was originally slated for an awards-courting release date back in September, then nudged ahead one month for reasons inscrutable to those outside distribution outfit Aviron Pictures, and finally moved once more to its rightful resting place in late January. This merely describes a symptom, however, and not the condition itself.

The January movie stands out not for its failings, but for the confidence and ingenuity with which it fails. Serenity was written, directed, and produced by Steven Knight, who’s proven himself competent in all three disciplines as a one-time scribe for David Cronenberg, the helmer of 2014’s solid Locke, and the creator of such BBC favorites as Peaky Blinders and Taboo. Evidently convinced of his own brilliance, Knight wielded enough industry cachet to steamroll the people generally tasked with keeping ideas like Serenity in the brains of their makers. The January movie is what happens when someone with a lot of vision and a minimum of self-awareness stops hearing the word “no,” and in this particular case, Knight lets his absolute assurance in his misguided mission run away with him all the way to Mauritius.

The minuscule tax-lax African island doubles for Plymouth, an isolated seaside community tucked away in the Florida Keys where the gruff Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey, his Oscar win now a distant memory) has taken up residence. Where he comes from seems to be a mystery even to him, the haunted look in his eyes our only hint at an unspoken dark past. He whiles away his days taking visitors out on fishing expeditions, making extra scratch in his side-hustle as a gigolo – McConaughey’s bare buttocks command more screen time than some of the human supporting actors – and single-mindedly pursuing a tuna he’s named “Justice” for symbolic purposes. Maybe it’s all the cryptic non sequiturs spoken by the townspeople, but something’s definitely amiss.

The arrival of Baker’s femme fatale ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway, blonde) reshapes what could be fairly deemed “The Old-But-Still-Got-It Man and the Sea” as a Sunshine State noir at maximum humidity. She needs Baker to kill the abusive new husband (Jason Clarke, visibly aware of how ridiculous his lines are and fully leaning into it) she won’t stop calling “daddy,” if not for her sake then for the sake of the unseen son they had together. Because it’s filled with garbled word-salad dialogue and a few screamingly awkward sex scenes, his ensuing moral turpitude makes for plenty of unintended hilarity. McConaughey and Hathaway share a mesmerizing anti-chemistry, not only implausible as lovers but as occupants of the same dimension. When she coos remembrances of losing her virginity to Baker in his tempted ear, it’s supposed to be tragically romantic, or at least sexy. Instead, the viewer begins mentally tabulating whether a sixteen-year-old Anne Hathaway bedding an equivalently de-aged Matthew McConaughey would qualify as statutory rape. (It would.)

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Serenity.
Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Serenity. Photograph: Graham Bartholomew/AP

A dash of the unexpected provides the finishing touch to any January movie worth its salts, and Knight has successfully smuggled one of the most gobsmackingly ill-conceived twists in recent history into multiplexes nationwide. To reveal it here would rob the film of a measure of its great and terrible power, so suffice it to say that it would be like It’s A Wonderful Life ending with Jimmy Stewart discovering that everyone in Bedford Falls was a robot. This reversal of fortune disorients not only in its casual upending of the entire plot and, indeed, reason itself, but also in the totality with which it changes what kind of movie Serenity’s going to be. A complete shift takes place as the film mutates from an overcooked genre piece guided by some exquisitely strange choices to something rarer and more precious.

The cinema calendar is chockablock with faulty efforts built around perfectly serviceable ideas, but realized without a modicum of distinction. Serenity offers the less-common inverse: a magnificently terrible idea, executed to perfection. It is the best kind of bad movie, bristling with more spectacularly dysfunctional personality than one hundred conveyor-belt CGI bonanzas. Its pleasures number too many to enumerate here – okay, fine: Hathaway’s character gets a momentous introduction with a Matrix-style 180-degree swoop – so do yourself the kindness of seeing this zeppelin crash of a film before its unceremonious dismissal from theaters. Insulate yourself from any further knowledge to the best of your ability, and bear witness to the minting of a new gold standard in January movies.

  • Serenity is out in the US on 25 January and in the UK on 1 March

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