Monday, August 9, 2010

Serious Moonlight (Night and Day Pictures, Magnolia Pictures, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Madeleine Peyroux’s album Dreamland contains a version of the song “Getting Some Fun Out of Life” backed with a piano-bass-drums rhythm section that sounded so much like Billie Holiday I was fooled into thinking it was Billie when I heard it at the start of the soundtrack of the film Serious Moonlight, a 2009 theatrical release that apparently went nowhere since I recorded it on Saturday off the Lifetime channel and just screened it this morning. (I checked the Web site and found that Billie’s only recording of “Getting Some Fun Out of Life” was the 1937 studio version with Claude Thornhill and Lester Young.)

Serious Moonlight (which carries eight listings for soundtrack songs on its credits, though David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” the source for the title, isn’t heard either in Bowie’s version or anyone else’s) is a bizarre romantic comedy — or at least a wanna-be romantic comedy — starring Meg Ryan as Louise, a successful attorney who decides to surprise her husband Ian (Timothy Hutton) by arriving at their vacation home in the country one day earlier than she was expected. We see Ian strewing the whole place with rose petals and we think, “How romantic,” though if you’ve seen this the day after watching The Room (which also used roses as an erotic gimmick) you’ll be flashed back to the sex scenes in that ridiculous but haunting movie, which are so much more interesting than the rest of it one wonders why The Room director (and producer, writer and star) Tommy Wiseau didn’t just turn it into out-and-out hard-core and create a money-maker instead of a money-loser.

Anyway, getting back to Serious Moonlight, it soon develops that the rose petals and romantic/erotic atmosphere weren’t intended for Louise: before she even enters, we see Ian writing her a note saying that he’s breaking up with her. He’s already got a replacement girlfriend, Sara (Kristen Bell), whom he’s planning to spend a wild night with in his and Louise’s bed and then fly out to Paris the next morning, following which at some point he intends to ask Louise for a divorce so he can marry Sara. When Louise finds his note — which he hadn’t finished when she arrived; he’d got as far as writing, “Please remember to feed the fish” (a goldfish they keep in a large brandy snifter), then crossing that out — she has the predictable jealous hissy-fit and gets so angry she throws a telephone at him, knocking him out. When he comes to she’s duct-taped him to a chair in the bedroom and announces that she intends to keep him there until he decides he’s no longer interested in Sara and is in love with his wife again.

When he protests that he has to use the bathroom (incidentally he demands to use the bathroom twice while neither she nor Sara seem to need it at all — odd since women usually have to pee more often than men), she undoes him from the chair — and re-tapes him to the toilet, this time with his pants down. “It’s going to take a miracle to get me to fall in love with you again!” Ian declares — and the miracle promptly arrives in the unlikely form of Todd (Justin Long, younger and considerably hotter-looking than Timothy Hutton — though, perhaps because this was a theatrical movie and not produced especially for Lifetime, Hutton is at least better looking than the usual tall, lanky, sandy-haired type Lifetime generally goes for in their leading men), who drives in on a tractor-style lawnmower, playing a punk-rock song through ear buds and therefore unable to hear Ian’s cries for help.

When he stops the mower, takes off the ear buds and does hear Ian’s cries for help, he turns out to be the leader of a gang of young burglars there to ransack the house and steal all the valuables — and instead of freeing Ian he regards it as a gift from Providence that he’s already tied up and therefore Ian and his gang don’t have to do that themselves. They invade the house and not only steal the obvious — the TV and stereo (they miss the valuable silverware Louise’s late mother willed them) — and pack it in an unmarked van, they then return to torture Ian some more (Todd seems to get off on taunting Ian over his marital distress and giving him a few back-handed slaps and punches to the face since he’s in no position to retaliate) and have a party in his living room. (The members of Todd’s gang are referred to in the credits only as “Man #1,” played by Derek Carter; “Man #2,” played by Bill Parks; and Todd’s girlfriend, “Trashy Girl,” played by Kimberlee Peterson.) Louise, who was out shopping for ingredients for “a romantic dinner” when the burglars arrived, returns and gets overpowered and duct-taped herself — as does Sara when she arrives the next morning in high dudgeon, wondering why Ian stood her up at the airport.

In the meantime, Todd used Louise’s helplessness to cop a feel of Louise’s breasts and say he’d never leave a woman with such hot tits — and Ian goes into a state of impotent defensiveness and the violation, however minor, of his wife starts him towards the process of a reconciliation. When Sara arrives and gets taped and thrown in the bathroom with her boyfriend and the wife he was going to leave for her, she goes into a jealous hissy-fit of her own and refuses to call anyone (since they were running of duct tape, her arms aren’t tied as tightly as everyone else’s) until Ian says he doesn’t love his wife anymore and is going to run off with her after all. Eventually the burglars take off, Sara gets her arms free enough to use her cell phone (which the burglars have neglected to steal), and they call the police — who are understandably confused by the presence of a man and two women as the victims. There’s a final tag scene in which Ian and Louise are selling the house where all this happened, they have a baby (an important issue early on since Ian was ragging Louise about the failure of their previous attempts at in vitro fertilization — leaving us to wonder how they got the baby: did their latest in vitro attempt take, did they actually conceive naturally, did they give up and adopt, or did Todd rape Louise and that’s his child?) and Ian is strolling down the streets of the small town near their country home when he sees Todd and his “trashy” girlfriend and maybe recognizes him as the burglar, or maybe not.

Serious Moonlight was directed by Cheryl Hines from a script by the late Adrienne Shelly — who, in an almost unbelievably ironic twist, was murdered in 2006 (three years before this film was made, which is an indication of how long it takes to get a story from page to screen these days) by a burglar who had broken into her office and whom she caught stealing money from her purse. Shelly’s death was a tragedy but it also was probably responsible for the fact that this script ever saw the light of day as a movie; had she survived, I’d like to think she’d have realized how terrible it was and mothballed it in favor of something she’d have written later and better. Serious Moonlight is a decently directed and acted movie — Meg Ryan had weathered the years well but there were enough character lines in her face it was evident she hadn’t had much, if any, “work” done (to use the au courant euphemism for plastic surgery), and she and Hutton both did the best they could with their ridiculous and impossibly written characters — but it’s clear this film (the type of movie Dwight Macdonald called “a comedy, at least in form and intention”) got made only because all the good ideas for romantic comedies were taken.

I was never that big a fan of Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan’s breakthrough movie, but compared to Serious Moonlight that looks like a Lubitsch film; Serious Moonlight just drones on and on, with the characters somehow managing to keep straight faces while enacting the ridiculous and impossible situations Shelly concocted from them — there were some people on an message board for this film who were defending her by saying all the silly stuff was added to the script by other hands after she died, but unless the burglar subplot was added later and inspired by Shelly’s death rather than something she invented herself in a weird and uncomfortable premonition of her own end, it’s hard to see how this movie could have been made genuinely entertaining because the whole premise is so stupid.