'Inheritance': Film Review

INHERITANCE still 2 - Chace Crawford-Lily Collins - Vertical Entertainment Publicity_H 2020
Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Lily Collins and Simon Pegg face off in a dark mystery involving a corruption-fighting DA who's confronted with her banker father's sordid secrets upon his death.

As we all know from watching TV and movies (and from reading history books and newspapers), the super-rich are different from you and me. The endless pursuit and maintenance of wealth, status and power isn't your usual 9-to-5, and along the way it's not unusual to accrue one or two skeletons in the closet — or, in the case of the Monroe family in the would-be thriller Inheritance, a prisoner in the dungeon.

Said captive is played by Simon Pegg with a creepy inscrutability that's the most interesting thing about the movie. Essentially a two-hander, the drama pits Pegg's Morgan Warner against Lily Collins' Lauren Monroe, scion of a New York dynasty and the horrified inheritor of her father's nasty little underground secret. The monster/victim and princess/rescuer are surrounded by stick figures in this thinly conceived takedown of the ultra-capitalist set.

Now available on DirecTV, and adding digital and on-demand platforms Friday, Inheritance contains the kernel of an involving sins-of-the-father saga, its potential repeatedly obscured or undermined by the belabored, flat proceedings. The Monroes may be Manhattanites who are all about wielding influence, but the Roys of Succession they ain't. Working from a clunky screenplay by first-timer Matthew Kennedy, director Vaughn Stein (Terminal) plays it straight, rather than tapping the premise's extreme weirdness for flashes of cutting humor or Shakespearean tragedy.

Instead we get the sleek Lauren imploring the wild-haired Morgan, "You're chained up in a bunker and I want to know why." She's a shockingly young and comically tough-talking district attorney, involved in the high-profile prosecution of a Madoff-type Wall Streeter when her banker father (Patrick Warburton) dies unexpectedly. The patriarch leaves oodles to Lauren's congressman brother, William (Chace Crawford), who's in the midst of a reelection campaign shrouded in accusations of corruption, and to her mother (Connie Nielsen), whose only concern is that William win the race. 

Lauren receives a paltry million, but there's the bonus prize of a manila envelope, handed to her privately by the family's lawyer, Harold (Michael Beach, suggesting nuances that the movie barely acknowledges). The contents: a thumb-drive video offering vague instructions concerning a secret that "must stay buried," and a key to a subterranean chamber in the woods behind the Monroe mansion — in other words, a bizarro curse and a punishment, especially when you factor in the chained man who's spent the past 30 years in that windowless space.

Morgan, with his demands, entreaties and Hannibal Lecter psychologizing, and even with the screenwriterly affectation of a memorized pie recipe that he's given to reciting in moments of stress, is more believable, and certainly more dimensional, than the normies in Lauren's life. Inheritance never brings her relationships with her husband (Marque Richardson) and school-age daughter (Mariyah Francis) into meaningful focus; while she increasingly ignores them, the narrative turns them into confusing distractions from the main action.

Lauren is a modern spin on an archetype — all power heels, career-woman slacks and fairy-tale-maiden beauty — and she's on a consuming mission, trying to suss out the truth in Morgan's explanation of why her father imprisoned him. Morgan knows things about her family that even Harold, the official guarder of secrets, doesn't know. He appeals to her compassion and relative goodness, understanding that she's the lone Monroe who hasn't made mammon her god. Flashbacks underscore the point in thick magic marker: Lauren's father berates her for "throwing it all away to be a civil servant"; over a chessboard he admonishes her to "win!"

Whether Morgan is mere victim or a master manipulator, he's counting on Lauren's interest in justice and redemption, and Pegg makes the ogreish character's moment-to-moment calculations engrossing, even when the story around him falters. Stein's attempts to stir things up via intense flights of crosscutting only accentuate the crucial lack of tension, although he does build a certain level of suspense as the film moves toward its final revelations.

With elegant contributions from DP Michael Merriman and composer Marlon E. Espino, Stein has put together a polished, if dramatically bland, package. The Alabama locations (with a few establishing shots of New York) offer a generic opulence that deepens the disconnect between the world of high-level movers and shakers that Inheritance pretends to inhabit and the unconvincing one where it actually unfolds. The idea of a literal crypt of living family secrets has a movie-ready, over-the-top absurdity, but in this smoothed-over telling, there's no dramatic juice, no impact — just pieces on a chess board, waiting to be maneuvered.

Production companies: Ingenious Media, Southpaw Entertainment, Redline Entertainment, Highland Film Group, Convergent Media
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Nielsen, Chace Crawford, Marque Richardson, Patrick Warburton, Michael Beach, Mariyah Francis, Rebecca Adams
Director: Vaughn Stein
Screenwriter: Matthew Kennedy
Producers: Richard Barton Lewis, David Wulf, Arianne Fraser
Executive producers: Santosh Govindaraju, Dan Reardon, Delphine Perrier, Henry Winterstern, Simon Williams, Daniel Negret, Anders Erdén, Seth Wulf, Jiayin Zheng, Rich Goldberg, Peter Jarowey, Gabrielle Jerou-Tabak, Joseph Lanius
Director of photography: Michael Merriman
Production designer: Diane Millett
Costume designer: Shawna Tisdale
Editor: Kristi Shimek
Composer: Marlon E. Espino
Casting director: Rich Delia

111 minutes