'Serenity': What the Critics Are Saying

How does the romantic thriller starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway fare? Critics give their take.

The reviews are in for Steven Knight’s romantic thriller Serenity — and critics are unimpressed.

The film centers on divorced couple Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) and Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway), who cultivate a murder-mystery setup after Karen offers Baker $10 million to kill her “gazillionaire” husband Frank (Jason Clarke). 

Serenity earned an apathetic review from The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. He writes, "It's a classic noir murder mystery setup: a down-on-his-luck schmuck lured by a gorgeous lost love into a once-in-a-lifetime payday that will put him on easy street forever. … But in the meantime, Knight has about an hour of screen time to kill before getting to the big deed, and he fills it none too engagingly or convincingly."

McCarthy also critiques the filmmaker’s attempt at a "contemporary tropical noir," which he found proved to be rather "tiresome." "The film plays footsie with such matters to increasingly tiresome effect as the narratively constrained scenario plays out,” he critiques. He adds, "Actors can usually have fun with such melodramatic roles, but Knight's stratagems serve to straitjacket the cast more than liberate it to diminishing returns as the climax remains an elusive vision on the horizon. Like a long fishing day without a bite, Serenity invites impatience rather than excited anticipation, and the eventual payoff provokes a big 'huh?"

The New York Post's Rob Bailey-Millado found Knight’s film to be one that "mixes a tried-and-true James M. Cain formula with a clever digital gimmick worthy of Christopher Nolan, but some of his dialogue is overripe to the point of rot." He writes, "Still, his Oscar-winning leads work hard, sometimes too hard, to hook us." Unimpressed with McConaughey's performance, Bailey-Millado credits Clarke for stealing the show as Frank Zariakas, whose character he describes as "Karen’s kinky, champagne-swilling hubby from hell. He’s a supremely repulsive villain worthy of this guilty-pleasure genre."

"But is Hathaway’s heavy-breathing Karen a damsel in distress or a femme fatale? Why does everyone in this tropical paradise seem to know a little too much — and is McConaughey hallucinating the whole damn thing? Don’t overthink it. Just enjoy the scenery," concludes Bailey-Millado.

Ty Burr of The Boston Globe is quick to point out that "it can be fairly said that a Matthew McConaughey movie opening in January should be approached with caution, if not a haz-mat suit and a pair of tongs. And Serenity is a guilty pleasure that’s guiltier than most, a southern-fried potboiler that seems to be settling in as a camp remake of Body Heat before it turns itself inside out and becomes something else entirely."

He continues, "Ladies (and gentlemen), I’m here to tell that the star gives his all for art — as per contractual obligation, McConaughey gets more nude scenes than his romantic partners — but his post-True Detective persona has robbed him of his old sleazy joy. Stick with Serenity and you’ll be rewarded with dialogue that could be written by a 13-year-old boy." 

Burr further finds that the film represents "a startling step down for a writer of Knight’s talents" because, when watching, the audience will "feel a crucial jigsaw piece snap into place and realize the true scope and utter, bat-crazy ridiculousness of Serenity." Though Burr finds the pic to still be a "decent Matthew McConaughey movie," he concludes "it’s more trashy fun than you’ll want to admit while sober — but it ultimately may not need McConaughey to function at all. The reason’s right there if you know how to look for it."

Meanwhile, Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post was unenthusiastic about the film, describing it as being "cheesy" and having "all the appeal of microwaved nachos." "The dialogue is bad, to the point of self-parody," he writes. "The performances are cartoonish, especially that of Hathaway, whose femme fatale comes across as a kind of live-action Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And the scenario abounds with cliche and lazy shorthand." 

O'Sullivan notes that the movie's defects "reveal themselves not to be flaws of execution, but deliberate stylistic choices by writer-director Steven Knight." He further explains, "To use a term from computer programming, Serenity’s problems aren’t bugs — they’re features. Put another way, the entire story takes place inside invisible air quotes. It isn’t a bad movie. It’s a 'bad' one." Despite having a twist to entertain the audience, O'Sullivan advises avoiding watching the film altogether: "All will be revealed in the fullness of time — assuming you don’t get so annoyed that you walk out after 15 minutes and slip into a screening of, say, If Beale Street Could Talk. (If it could, it might say, 'Don’t watch Serenity.')"

IndieWire’s Jude Dry considered the romantic thriller to be a "roller coaster" and can best be summarized 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." Though Serenity features star power with McConaughey and Hathaway, Dry credited the actress for being one of the film's "heavy hitters." He writes, "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." 

Dry also compared Knight's film to that of Paul Feig's A Simple Favor, though he finds it doesn't project the same satire humor. "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." 

Rafer Guzmán of Newsday notes that though Serenity was "pitched as a steamy noir set on a tropical island," the pic proves to be "a massive bait and switch." He considers McConaughey to be "well cast as Baker," but "Hathaway, as the femme fatale, presents oddly" and the "love-triangle set-up is such a classic that we’re willing to overlook the film’s odd tics, including the zig-zagging camerawork that comes with accompanying 'swoosh' noises."

Guzmán notes that the "weirdness, we’ll discover, is all intentional. ... When the truth finally dawns, it feels less like a mind-blower than a sucker punch. Knight, who once made a riveting, laser-focused thriller with just one actor (Locke starring Tom Hardy), here does the opposite, creating a scattered, unsatisfying mess with a full cast (including Diane Lane as Constance, Baker’s favorite sex worker)." 

On the other end, Matt Goldberg of Collider is aware that "most people will hate Steven Knight’s new movie," but advises that "what’s being sold as a sultry thriller is only what’s on the surface of a movie with an absolutely bonkers twist." He adds, "Even if you see the twist coming, you won’t believe that Knight actually went for it, and it pays off for a film that’s far more memorable than a B-movie tale of sex and murder."

Unlike other critics, Goldberg was entertained by the pic's hyped twist: "The twist is stunningly audacious and the kind of swing for the fences where I have to respect the ambition involved. For some people, the twist won’t work and it will render a film where they had already checked out as unsalvageable. And I’ll admit that the twist doesn’t work completely because it forces you to reevaluate things that no longer make sense in the new context. But overall, I think the twist serves the movie well and gives Serenity a heart where before there was only tired clichés." He also notes that, "Even if you don’t like the movie, I think you’ll at least admire its gall."