It can be fairly said that a Matthew McConaughey movie opening in January should be approached with caution, if not a haz-mat suit and a pair of tongs. And “Serenity” is a guilty pleasure that’s guiltier than most, a southern-fried potboiler that seems to be settling in as a camp remake of “Body Heat” before it turns itself inside out and becomes something else entirely. Early in the going, the star stands atop a high seaside cliff contemplating his fate. Look down and you might find a hint to this movie’s many puzzles.
The writer-director is Steven Knight, a maverick Brit who will be forever dear to some moviegoers’ hearts for 2013’s “Locke,” which put Tom Hardy in a car on a highway for 90 minutes and made it not only interesting but compulsively suspenseful. “Serenity” is that film’s opposite, sprawlingly messy where “Locke” was compact and concise.
Set on a vaguely Caribbean outpost called Plymouth Island — “the most beautiful island in this damn dirty world” — the movie gives us McConaughey as Baker Dill, a burned-out charter-boat fisherman with a traumatic tour of Iraq and a busted marriage in his past. His days are filled with rich jerks catching swordfish, his nights are spent making the hot divorcee on the hill (poor Diane Lane, who deserves better) very happy, and he’s obsessed with the big one that got away. That would be either a rogue tunafish nicknamed Justice or his ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway).
As if on programmed schedule, the ex shows up, a bottle-blonde siren with an abusive new husband in tow (Jason Clarke, ably making you hate him within seconds). Would Baker kindly take him out past the 3-mile limit, get him drunk, and feed him to the sharks?
Look, you think you know where this is going. Baker will put his game face on, do the deed, then find himself up to his glistening McConaughey pecs in neo-noir trouble. Buddy, do you have it wrong. Glitches start to appear in the story line, including the appearance of Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong of HBO’s “Succession”), a nerdy fishing-supplies sales rep with a Very Important Message for our hero.
Ladies (and gentlemen), I’m here to tell that the star gives his all for art — as per contractual obligation, McConaughey gets more nude scenes than his romantic partners — but his post-“True Detective” persona has robbed him of his old sleazy joy. Stick with “Serenity” and you’ll be rewarded with dialogue that could be written by a 13-year-old boy — “You’re obsessed with a tuna, man, and it’s a tuna that lives in your head!” — a startling step down for a writer of Knight’s talents. Come to think of it, the film’s idea of what men and women do when the lights go out is pretty adolescent, too.
At a certain point, you may feel a crucial jigsaw piece snap into place and realize the true scope and utter, bat-crazy ridiculousness of “Serenity.” Or you’ll come out feeling baffled, cheated, shaken down for your spare change. And then maybe you’ll want to go back and look for the Easter eggs hidden in the movie’s labyrinthine folds. Or maybe not. I’m hard pressed to say that this qualifies as a good movie. There definitely has been nothing like it before. For which we should perhaps be thankful.
Go, then, for the delirious nonsense of Lane’s character constantly asking Baker to find her cat — the movie can’t make up its mind whether she’s talking dirty or not — or for Hathaway doing her very best Jessica Rabbit impression. Try to ignore the tragic waste of Djimon Hounsou as Baker’s occasional first mate, lost in the chum as the hero levels up to possible first-degree homicide.
Are all those subsidiary characters on the island important to the story line and secrets of “Serenity,” or are they just bit players? What starts as a suspense drama of almost binary simplicity branches off into watery byways, narrative hemming and hawing, and guttural roars from McConaughey. You may feel his pain.
Maybe there’s an existential theme running along way down in this movie’s subscript. “Serenity” has the goofy, reality-bending conviction of such idiot’s delights as “The Lake House” and “Source Code,” and if you’ve discovered those movies late at night on cable, when no one can hear your snorts of disbelief, you’ll know just how to handle this one when it slips the bonds of sanity about halfway through.
Ends justify the means, but only sometimes. When “Serenity” pulls aside its final curtain, you may wonder if all the genre-film gamesmanship, the feints and fake-outs, have been worth it. It’s a pretty decent Matthew McConaughey movie — meaning it’s more trashy fun than you’ll want to admit while sober — but it ultimately may not need McConaughey to function at all. The reason’s right there if you know how to look for it.
Written and directed by Steven Knight. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 106 minutes. R (language throughout, sexual content, some bloody images).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.