Where exactly is the line between a bad movie and a so-bad-it's-good movie? Serenity, the new thriller starring Matthew McConaughey's bare chest, poses many questions, including ones of a philosophical and existential nature, but they all pale in comparison to the question of whether the film's sheer silliness makes it worth watching.
McConaughey plays a fishing-boat captain based on a Caribbean island called Plymouth. His main trade is catering to tourists, but he's so obsessed with catching a particular tuna, which he's dubbed "Justice," that he pulls a knife on a client who dares come between him and his prey.
Thus is our hero established as a hybrid of Captain Ahab and Ernest Hemingway, with a half-audible raspy growl to match. The remonstrations of his sensible first mate (Djimon Hounsou) fail to dampen McConaughey's ardor for the fish. Out of cash, he traipses up the hill for a tryst with Constance (Diane Lane), who's happy to finance him. "You're nothing but a hooker, Baker Dill," she purrs, revealing that he bears the sort of "manly" name a middle schooler might invent. "I'm a hooker who can't afford hooks," Baker Dill drawls back.
That dialogue is representative of the film's attempts at being a steamy noir. The overheated atmosphere of vintage Cinemax only thickens when a platinum blond Anne Hathaway saunters in as Karen, Dill's ex, and the camera swoops appreciatively around her. Remarried to a rich sadist (Jason Clarke), she offers Dill $10 million to "drop my husband in the ocean for the sharks." Dill is tempted, mainly because he's worried about the vulnerable son (Rafael Sayegh) he left behind.
If the movie continued in this vein, it would be merely forgettable. But writer-director Steven Knight, who made the buzzed-about one-man thriller Locke, drops hints that he has something else up his sleeve. When Dill skinny-dips in the ocean, he seems to communicate telepathically with his son. Meanwhile, a bespectacled bureaucrat type (Jeremy Strong) keeps an eye on him.
When the foreshadowed twist arrives, it is beautifully ludicrous. Without spoiling it, I can say all is revealed early, not far from the film's midpoint — and not a moment too soon for this viewer.
Then Serenity flounders because, once Knight has exposed what's really going on, he can't figure out how to make us care. If he'd hooked us with a creepy sense of wrongness from the get-go, he might have managed to reel us in, but the reveal simply heaps absurdities on absurdities. McConaughey gamely does his best with a series of water-treading scenes. When a character pulls out one of the most quoted lines in Shakespeare, the attempt at profundity feels like desperation.
Serenity would get more points for originality if its central conceit hadn't been done before and better, but it does earn itself a place in the annals of cinematic WTFs. If you thought the worlds of gritty pulp author James M. Cain and sentimental twist-meister M. Night Shyamalan were incompatible, think again — Knight has mashed them up, for better or (mostly) worse.
As to whether such a feat makes Serenity worth watching, well, that's a personal decision. The tropical scenery is luscious, McConaughey seems to be having fun, and Hathaway manages to inject steely venality into her boilerplate role. More than anything, though, the film is an object lesson in shooting high and missing by a mile. Calling it "good" is an exaggeration, but aspiring screenwriters would do well to analyze all the ways it throws logic overboard.