When Adrienne Shelly was murdered in 2006, it was a heinous, heartbreaking event that struck down a talented actress finally getting a firm grip on motion picture direction, with her final effort, “Waitress,” a tender valentine to the various varieties of love. It’s hard to say where her screenplay for “Serious Moonlight” would’ve fit in during this glowing career ascension, but I hope, for the sake of her memory, that the material was still multiple drafts away from completion. “Serious Moonlight” is not how I want to remember Adrienne Shelly.
Ian (Timothy Hutton) has grown tired of his marriage to Louise (Meg Ryan), ready to leave his wife and take off to Paris with his much younger lover, Sara (Kristen Bell). Stumbling upon his plans, Louise snaps, knocking Ian unconscious and duct-taping him to a chair for furious examination. Refusing to let her husband go until he reaffirms his love and devotion, Louise hopes to trigger Ian’s sympathy with slide shows, cookies, and long-winded recollections of the past. Initially irate, Ian begins to break down, recalling the loving core of his marriage. The brash therapy is eventually cut short by a burglar (Justin Long), who barges in on the couple, taping Louise up in the process, leaving them to stew in the moment when Sara comes by to collect her man.
Actress Cheryl Hines is an all-around charmer and a skilled comedienne, but a director she is most certainly not. “Serious Moonlight” marks her debut behind the camera, taking the gig to celebrate her “Waitress” director by continuing Shelley’s work with a script that reflects her cracked worldview. Admittedly, the material would be an intimidating challenge for any filmmaker, as the screenplay contains the static posture of a theatrical production, with nearly all of the momentum of the work rooted in heated verbal exchanges situated in fixed locations.
Making a viable motion picture out of two people ceaselessly bickering overwhelms Hines, who allows Ryan and Hutton to project to the rafters, encouraging aggressive overacting that destroys the planned sentiment. Ryan is especially guilty of chewing the scenery, flailing her arms and contorting her face in wild directions to express Louise’s frustration with Ian’s adulterous determination. Considering most of the film means being stuck with these odious characters in small rooms, the grating performances darken the situation further. Making matters worse, the performers fail to communicate why Ian and Louise even found each other in the first place. The screenplay contains passages examining marital comfort and newlywed bliss, but the compassion never felt in Ryan or Hutton’s performance. The artificiality of the conflict adds to the overall unpleasantness of the picture.
When Justin Long enters the film in the final act as the thief taking advantage of the duct-taped couple, “Moonlight” reveals a nasty side as the crook beats around Ian and feels up an unconscious Louise. The detour speaks to Shelly’s flirtation with black comedy and unconventional attitudes, yet the added violence doesn’t develop the picture in the least. In fact, it renders it even more repellent, making the filmgoing experience less about rooting for rekindled love between Ian and Louise and more about just wanting the film to end.
Commencing with a cutesy Stockholm Syndrome gimmick, “Serious Moonlight” doesn’t have much to offer beyond squabbling and witless monologuing. Hines can’t twist the story into a sympathetic whole, leaving the film a mess of tartness and insensitivity that’s difficult to endure. Adrienne Shelly deserved a friendlier farewell than this crummy picture.