'Home Sweet Hell': Film Review

Home Sweet Hell Still -- H
Courtesty Vertical Entertainment
There's nothing sweet about this hell.

Katherine Heigl plays a deranged suburban housewife and Patrick Wilson her adulterous husband in Anthony Burns' black comedy.

More than a few fine minds have mulled the question: What happened to Katherine Heigl? Frankly, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp it. The lushly pretty former Grey’s Anatomy star, a better-than-average actress able to swing from eye-welling emotion to screwball goofiness with ease, made a convincing bid for a big-screen career with Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up. She followed that up with 27 Dresses, a passable rom-com that did solid box office. But then came an onslaught of critical and commercial stink bombs — notably, the toxic triumvirate of Killers, Life As We Know It and, oh, the indignity, One for the Money — as well as a sexism-tainted media backlash (Heigl has a reputation for being “outspoken” i.e. “difficult” i.e. you know where this is going) and a widely panned TV series, NBC’s State of Affairs.

And that’s how we ended up with the wretched black comedy Home Sweet Hell, directed by Anthony Burns (from a script by Carlo Allen, Ted Elrick and Tom Lavagnino) and available for masochistic consumption via iTunes and limited theatrical release March 13. The kind of blithely confident, creatively impoverished dud that leaves you slightly stunned someone greenlit it, the movie has the distinction of feeling like a bad idea from its very first frames: an aerial shot of ticky-tacky suburban houses set to a chirpy, deeply annoying song called “Moon and the Stars,” written for the film by Josh Kelley (aka Mr. Katherine Heigl).

Heigl plays Mona Champagne (whose name is easily the most entertaining thing about her), part Stepford Wife, part Serial Mom, with a touch of Election’s Tracy Flick and a dash of Desperate Housewives’ Bree Van de Kamp. Married to milquetoasty business owner Don (Patrick Wilson, a fine actor whose golden good looks have led to some unfortunate typecasting), Mona is an OCD sufferer with structurally perfect blond hair, flawless makeup and a poisonous personality. Whether she’s scrubbing the sink with a maniacal twinkle in her eye or spewing bile with a smile — she sneeringly addresses the gay couple next door as “ladies” — the character is so derivative of other big- and small-screen figures (see above) that we pretty much know what she’s going to say before she says it.

Read more 'State of Affairs': TV Review

The plot lurches into motion when a young woman named Dusty (Jordana Brewster) sashays into Don’s store looking for a job. Don hires Dusty, and soon the two are “working late” (wink, wink). When Dusty claims she’s pregnant with Don’s child and demands money, Don comes clean to Mona, who naturally suggests killing Dusty, hacking her body into pieces and hiding her remains in the trailer of some fearsome-looking bumpkins who, in fact, were Dusty’s partners in extortion. Still following? Doesn’t matter, since Home Sweet Hell is the sort of would-be satire that seems to have no idea what it’s satirizing (Yuppies? Mental illness? The American obsession with perfection and achievement?), and whose idea of naughtiness is a handful of crushingly unfunny jokes about Mexicans, Jews and Crohn’s disease.

As the Champagnes start plotting Dusty’s demise, you hope the movie will go truly dark or get a little crazy — please, anything to wake us up — but the most startling image it musters is blood splattering on Mona’s white nightie. For a film intent on rubbing our noses in just how deranged its characters are, that’s a pretty poor showing.

Home Sweet Hell bounces along ineffectually, breezily passing up every opportunity to entertain even on its own formulaic terms. At one point, Don is forced to take crystal meth (don’t ask) and — God forbid the filmmakers should stoop to making us laugh — the movie doesn’t even bother to set up a gag; it’s that lazy, or perhaps under the mistaken impression that it’s above throwing the audience a bone.

Read more Katherine Heigl: "I Wish I Could Change Shonda Rhimes' Crappy Impression of Me"

Both leads here try too hard, contorting their faces and delivering overly emphatic line readings to let us know they’re in on the joke — as if, with material this bludgeoningly arch, that were necessary. Jim Belushi also shows up, for what it’s worth, as Don’s boorish colleague.

Home Sweet Hell is aiming — I think — for the zing and chilliness of the Coen brothers or the gleeful bad taste of John Waters. But for all their snappy cuts and deadpan compositions, Burns (whose debut was the dramatically wan, though atmospheric, Skateland) and his collaborators never rise above bland competence.

If the film is worth even a cursory look, it’s from a sociocultural standpoint. The role of Mona was in many ways the inevitable final step in the “shrewification” of Katherine Heigl; the actress who started off portraying relatable gals looking for love, then went on to prissy prima donnas, neurotic harpies and brazen ball-busters, is now playing full-fledged psycho. Home Sweet Hell finds her onscreen persona finally surpassing her offscreen image in terms of unpleasantness.

All that aside, Heigl has talent and is certainly not undeserving of career rehab. Needless to say, this isn’t it.

Production Companies: Darko Entertainment, Donnybrook4 Productions
Cast: Katherine Heigl, Patrick Wilson, Jordana Brewster, Kevin McKidd, AJ Buckley, and Jim Belushi
Director: Anthony Burns
Screenwriters: Carlo Allen, Ted Elrick, and Tom Lavagnino
Producers: A.J. Buckley, Anthony Burns, Jeff Culotta, Sean McKittrick
Executive producers: Andre James, Philip B. Goldfine, Ted Hamm
Director of photography: David Hennings
Production designer: Leonard R. Spears
Editor: Robert Hoffman
Costume designer: Shauna Leone
Casting: Jennifer Cooper

Rated R, 98 minutes