There aren’t enough maritime puns in the world to describe the roller coaster that is Matthew McConaughey’s latest showboating project, but even if there were — “Serenity” already used them all. The movie can best be described as a neo-noir soap opera about a man’s quest for a giant tuna, but it’s so over the top it nearly sinks under the weight of delicious insanity. There is a reason that women and gay men own the camp genre; machismo is so ubiquitous that a send-up doesn’t read as satire, at least not this one. The women are the only ones in on the joke, thanks to heavy hitters Anne Hathaway and Diane Lane. Hathaway moves like liquid dynamite, pouring sultriness into her every inch of screen time. She and Lane are the only ones who know how best to handle the ridiculous script: milk it for all it’s worth.
It’s an intentional ridiculousness, cultivated precisely by writer/director Steven Knight. As a screenwriter, Knight earned critical success with “Eastern Promises” (2007), “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), and as the creator of the BBC series “Peaky Blinders.” This is his third time directing his own script, most successfully with 2014’s Tom Hardy-starring “Locke.” As the many course corrections of “Serenity” unfold, leading up to one big reveal that explains the movie’s arch tone, it is clear that Knight is entirely in control, though perhaps not in his right mind.
The movie opens with a soaring overhead shot of a fishing boat in the middle of pristine blue seas, accompanied by a dramatic drum-heavy soundtrack. The boat belongs to a rugged, stubborn man named, in the movie’s first unbelievable twist, Baker Dill (McConaughey). While out with two tourists and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), he gets a line on the one; the massive tuna fish he has been chasing for god knows how long. “It’s him. I can feel it,” he tells Duke, before wrangling the lines from two angry customers only to lose the water beast again.
Soon thereafter he is writhing on top of Constance (Diane Lane), who hands him a wad of cash afterwards, telling him: “You’re nothing more than a hooker.” To which Baker Dill replies: “A hooker who can’t afford hooks.” Oh boy.
Constance calls Baker her pussycat, though she has a black cat of her own who makes a few ominous but ultimately inconsequential appearances. “I like my cats to depend on me,” she tells him, before he slowly lowers himself to his knees. Discovering he is too preoccupied with his mystery tuna to eat hers, however, she wonders out loud to nobody but herself: “Dear lord, can’t you put that man and that damn fish together?”
When Karen waltzes into his local bar, she turns all the heads in town. We soon discover she is Baker’s ex, and the mother of the son he keeps talking out loud to. She’s married to a rich man who mistreats her something awful, and she’s come to the little island to offer Baker $10 million dollars to kill him. All he has to do is take him out fishing and feed him to the sharks.
From there, the movie gets mired in Baker’s morality, or lack thereof. He turns down Karen’s offer, but she is persistent in her seduction, resulting in an at-first-steamy sex scene that turns into a misogynistic tease. Although Baker is supposed to be the good guy, he pulls out after Karen orgasms, announcing that he “won.”
Compared to the outlandishly villainous Frank (Jason Clarke), Baker is a total gentleman. A caricature of pure evil, Frank dons reading glasses to inspect Karen’s body before ceremoniously yanking off his belt. At one point, he asks about a port on the island where “little girls will take it in the ass for ten bucks a pop.” Not that there ever was a time when it was cool to joke about pedophilia, but it’s definitely not now! There are plenty of ways to write a supervillain — we didn’t need all of them.
The big reveal at the end of the second act is absurd enough to pump some adrenaline into the third act, but the movie drags on too long afterwards. Baker hems and haws for far too long about his predicament, driving in a panic through the corn fields a few too many times. Although he seems confused, the audience was not, and Knight over-explains the twist, as if he was so pleased with himself he wanted to make sure everyone heard it twice.
“Serenity” bears a resemblance to Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor,” which didn’t impress this critic but earned a devoted following for its winking pulp and sharply suited Blake Lively. But that film centered on two women, this one follows an ornery fisherman on a quest for tuna and justice. If the Trump era has taught us anything, it’s that most men don’t have a sense of humor about masculinity. And the ones that do probably won’t see this movie.
“Serenity” opens in theaters from Aviron Pictures on January 25.