'Serenity': Film Review

A waterlogged modern noir.

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway star in this Florida-set romantic thriller from Steven Knight ('Locke').

An attempt at a contemporary tropical noir, Serenity leaves its talented cast stranded on the beach. Too self-consciously tricky and never in the least convincing, this misfire from the sometimes inspired writer-director Steven Knight (Locke; the script for Eastern Promises) knowingly brandishes 1940s-style murder-melodrama and femme fatale tropes in a steamy setting populated by louche characters. But if the point is that life is but a game, we've heard that one before, and better told.

When it comes to playing that game, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) hasn't figured out the rules yet, much less come up with a way to win. Well into middle age, Dill skippers the Serenity, a tourist fishing boat out of sleepy Plymouth Island off the Florida coast (the film, thanks to local financing, was entirely shot in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean). On this fine day, Dill gets his hook into a huge fish he's tried to reel in three times before, but once again it gets away, giving the man something to obsess about until next they meet.

Dill has a nice, relaxed thing going with local beauty Constance (Diane Lane) until a vision from out of the past materializes in the comely form of Karen (Anne Hathaway), Dill's ex-wife and mother of their teen son, Patrick. Karen's been married for some time to gazillionaire Frank (Jason Clarke), who huffs and puffs and scowls around the edges of the story, little aware that Karen has come to offer Dill $10 million to kill him.

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. And maybe he'll get Karen back in the bargain. 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. Dill's loyal first mate, Duke (Djimon Hounsou), is around and then he's not; weird salesman Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) hovers about, announcing that "Plymouth Island is a game"; and Dill alternately commits to getting into killer shape and becoming totally plastered, both activities serving as tedious filler without any dramatic oomph behind it.

Casting aside any pretense of originality, Knight is announcing that life is but a game — perhaps, in this day and age, literally so. Are video games the new gods, reducing humans to mere pawns in a giant construct of their own devising? Or, as more traditional noirs would have it, are humans doomed to be the victims of their own folly, falling into emotional and behavioral traps of which they're aware but cannot avoid?

The film plays footsie with such matters to increasingly tiresome effect as the narratively constrained scenario plays out. 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?"

Appearing at once dissolute and totally ripped, McConaughey dives headlong into Dill's conundrum, at times overbearingly so. Many mysteries and noirs are far-fetched, even preposterous, on the face of things but suck you in anyway. This one just doesn't seduce or encourage you to switch off your b.s. detector. The dilemma as presented is hokey, which makes the characters' (and the actors') commitment to take it all very seriously seem rather silly.

Production companies: Nebulastar, Shoebox Films
Distributor: Aviron Pictures
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane, Djimon Hounsou, Jeremy Strong
Director-screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Steven Knight, Greg Shapiro, Guy Heeley
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Deborah Zipser, Karine Martin, David Lipman, Jeffrey Stentz, Carsten H.W. Lorenz, Paul Webster, David Dinerstein, Jason Resnick, William Sadleir
Director of photography: Jess Hall
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Laura Jennings
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch

Rated R, 103 minutes