Serious Moonlight

Misery in primary colors, Serious Moonlight doesn’t make sense, but in the best way. Everything about it seems like a setup for something utterly factory-produced and tasteless, the kind of thing you stumble across on cable during those blessed breaks between Law & Order reruns. Though the result is half-baked, the film does take chances, particularly when it comes to Meg Ryan, here playing a woman who is intent on killing the man she has duct-taped to a chair — her husband.

The tart, frequently goofy screenplay is by the late Adrienne Shelley, the former indie actress who at the time of her 2006 murder was reconfiguring herself into a writer-director of some middling success, a rare and difficult transition in an industry that prefers to keep its laborers strictly categorized at all times. Shelley’s study in small-town cuteness, Waitress (released in 2007), included among its cast Cheryl Hines, who here directs for the first time.

In that role, Hines stays in the shallow end, going for a strictly TV-movie look. Her movie conjures a generically Southern California studio-pastoral feel, with flat bright colors and adorable renovated farmhouse in a tree-studded valley. With this background relegated as such, Hines concentrates on Shelly’s story, which is both chirpy and wicked.

Ryan plays Louise, a high-powered attorney who never has time for anything but work, including her husband Ian (Timothy Hutton, whose agreeably shaggy-dog role can be simply defined: jerk). When she discovers that Ian is planning to leave with his (Kristen Bell, in full angry-cheerleader mode). Louise — who has been utterly clueless up to this point that anything was wrong in their marriage — tries to convince him that breaking up makes no sense. When her lawyering has no effect, Louise does the obvious. She beans Ian with a flowerpot, and while he’s unconscious, duct-tapes him to a chair — all the better for her to deliver final arguments.

As a story, this is arguably thin and stage-bound (perhaps it would have been better served as a one-room play), not to mention hinging on a final twist that most people will see coming. But Hines finagles a modicum of charm out of it, mostly by letting her performers perform. Shelley’s scenario has some edge to it, sharpened by the presence of Ryan, who even after years of fighting cute and perky casting, embodies this role complete ease, supplying it with the kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm that it needs. It would be going too far to claim that Serious Moonlight is a dark comedy hiding in the bright sunlight, but there’s no denying that its sparkly, quippy surface serves to highlight the currents churning beneath.

RATING 6 / 10