Wednesday, July 7, 2010
 when dark comedy isn't comedy
Yesterday I watched a movie called Serious Moonlight. It stars Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton, with Justin Long and Kristen Bell in supporting roles, and it's marketed as a comedy. Admittedly, the fact that this was airing on Lifetime probably should have been my first hint that the movie might not fit into my definition of "funny." I'll cop to that. Still, I was expecting something along the lines of You've Got Mail or When Harry Met Sally. Not. So. Much.
The synopsis of the movie given on my DVR said something about a woman duct taping her adulterous husband to a toilet just as home invaders break in. Sounds like some sorts of zany antics should ensue, like an updated and more grown-up version of House Arrest. In some ways, these films actually are kind of similar. Once the house is being robbed, the husband and wife are left to try to work out their problems in captivity. Okay, did I say some ways? 'Cause that's really the only way.
What seems like a pretty entertaining plot for a comedy quickly spirals into being just plain disturbing. I know this may be blasphemy, but I'm gonna go ahead and say that Meg Ryan is not all that funny to begin with. I will grant her, though, that she does a good job of playing the exact same character in everything. Since she's departed from that character, I think we can all agree that her success has been pretty limited - and by limited, I mean, pretty much nonexistent. She does not play our old friends Sally Albright or Kathleen Kelly in this film. She plays an over-the-top, unhinged woman who thinks that she can convince her husband to fall back in love with her by taping him to the John, baking him cookies, and talking about the good ol' days. It isn't long before her husband, who's planning on proposing to his mistress, invokes the infertility card. 'Cause nothing's funnier than a woman's inability to make a baby. Heh heh. Heh. Heh?
The home invader, Justin Long, is cold and aggressive. He gropes an unconscious Meg Ryan and talks about the ways he wants to violate her, while Tim Hutton looks on helplessly and pleads for him to stop. To quote Adam Scott's character on Party Down, are we having fun yet? Later, we throw Kristen Bell into the mix, who alternately screams about how they're going to die and then nags Timothy Hutton about which one of the women he's going to pick. Somehow, we're supposed to believe that it's imperative he chooses before they all die a horrible death at the hands of Justin Long and his stoner friends, who are, inexplicably, downstairs partying for two days. Either that, or we're supposed to think it's funny that she's insisting he choose, in light of the circumstances. Whatever the scene is trying to do or be, it's failing. The whole movie is failing.
This might have made an interesting drama with a few plot tweaks. Or maybe with someone believable like Kathy Bates playing the snapped wife. There are even ways they could have made this a good comedy. The thing is, though, that there is a fine line between dark comedy and just plain dark. There needs to be a level of absurdity, not just insanity. Women being molested, cheated on, and looked down upon for an inability to reproduce really aren't funny things. Neither is the idea of a man tormenting a couple for fun while robbing their house particularly amusing. The woman who wrote the screenplay, Adrienne Shelley, was later murdered by a home invader, and it wasn't funny at all. I don't necessarily blame her for this mess of a movie, as she wasn't there to direct it or approve any of the final details. I'm gonna give her the benefit of the doubt and hope that this wasn't what she had in mind. The film is brutal and unfeeling, and the only thing that keeps it from being tragic is the fact that there isn't a single character you root for. They're all terrible people.
There is actually a pretty clever twist at the end of the film, but it doesn't redeem the hour and a half or so it took to get to that point. I won't ruin it, even though I also would not recommend that you watch it. If you're curious, there are plenty of spoilers on the IMDb discussion board for the film.
I guess this just highlights something that has always bothered me about a lot of movies. I think that a lot of times filmmakers just leap over that line that divides a comedy from tragedy. I can think of a lot of films that people told me were hilarious, but that ended up leaving me with a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. I rarely find entertaining murder, rape, suicide, or abuse. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit that I laughed in Burn After Reading when a certain character got shot in the face quite suddenly and unexpectedly. One of my favorite shows is America's Funniest Home Videos, so I'm certainly not above a little schadenfreude. I'm sure there are plenty of times when I've laughed at horrible things. For me, though, there are so few times when heinous, violent acts are warranted in a comedy. Serious Moonlight is a perfect example of how dark comedy can go very, very wrong.
But you don't have to take my word for it...