Adrienne Shelly was on the verge of a breakthrough when she was tragically murdered in her Manhattan office apartment in late 2006; long known as an actress in indie films (particularly in the films of Hal Hartley), she had seen her film Waitress, which she wrote, directed, and co-starred in, accepted to the Sundance Film Festival. That film went on to become a sleeper hit the following summer, and would certainly have marked the beginning of an exciting new phase in her career. She did, however, leave an unfilmed screenplay behind. That script, Serious Moonlight, has now been filmed, with Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines making her directorial debut.With that kind of backstory, you can’t help but go in rooting for Serious Moonlight. It’s an incredibly likable movie, and it’s a slick, professional job. But it’s a little too clean and easy, and it doesn’t quite manage to pull off the delicate balancing act of off-beat charm with dark undertones that Waitress did. Its opening scenes are not encouraging; the jazz music, upper-class location, and presence of Meg Ryan have us worried that we’re entering Nora Ephron territory here (it proves better than that, although that isn’t much of an accomplishment).
Meg Ryan stars as Louise, a high-powered attorney who inadvertently catches her husband (Timothy Hutton) as he’s about to rendezvous with his mistress (Kristen Bell) and leave Louise. There’s some funny business about how he’s trying to accomplish this (fearing confrontation, he tries writing a note, which includes a request to feed the fish); they engage in the expected arguing and banter. And then she throws a potted plant at his head, and he wakes up bound with duct tape. I sat up a little. This was getting interesting.
“You won’t be untaped until you love me again,” she informs him, and so begins their long night of bickering, reminiscing, yelling, pleading, and so on. There is some good material in here, but much of this section of the film is a little too controlled and constructed; it feels theatrical, somehow stagey, and while the best of the dialogue has a nice, natural ring, a lot of it feels written instead of spoken.
None of this is the fault of Ryan, who here gives her most robust performance in years (not a surprise—if you can get past all the weird stuff she’s done to her face, she was actually quite good in last year’s dreadful remake of The Women). It’s a fizzy, spirited piece of work, and her line readings are just sharp as a tack. She also has a moment on their front porch, early in the film, where she completely loses her shit; it’s a tough bit of acting to get away with, but she’s so raw and unguarded, she pulls it off. However, her big monologue about their wedding day and their marriage is smothered by Andrew Hollander’s maudlin score (a complaint I find myself becoming a broken record about these days)—I found myself focusing more intently on her so I could tune that terrible music out.
Timothy Hutton (or “Tim Hutton,” as he’s inexplicably billed) doesn’t quite match up with her. His performance is passable, but Ryan’s just acting circles around the guy, and by the midway mark, she’s so exhausted that she starts acting down to him. It’s not entirely his fault; his role isn’t written as well as hers. When his big moment comes, he tries to underplay it, but it comes across as stilted; he’s just saying lines here. And no young actress projects fierce intelligence as effortlessly as Kristen Bell does, so it’s kind of sad to see her wasted in what’s essentially a nothing, young-and-dumb role.
Serious Moonlight has a little more flavor than the vanilla chick flicks that Ryan made her name on (and that it probably will be marketed to resemble). Though it has some decent performers and a few solid chuckles, it’s too put-together for my taste; it evaporates by the time you’re out of the theater.