FilmSpace: Serenity; What Men Want; Fisherman's Friends

Film critic Calum Cooper examines some of the week’s past releases, including a bafflingly bad new film starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, a loose remake on a Nancy Meyers film, and a biopic on sea shanty singers.

Serenity – ★☆☆☆☆

Well, I’m now 100 minutes closer to death. I felt a lot of things during this movie, but serenity sure as hell wasn’t one of them. The movie goes from boring to preposterous to unintentionally hilarious, all while peddling this misplaced air of self-seriousness. It’s an awful film, but with the right mentality, and the right drink in hand, there may be some entertainment value to its awfulness.

Serenity stars Matthew McConaughey as a fishing boat captain who is obsessed with catching one fish in particular, nicknamed Justice (get it?). He stays on a remote island with idyllic neighbourhoods and a bubbly community, but mostly keeps to himself. All that changes with the arrival of his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway), who approaches McConaughey in hope that he’ll help her murder her abusive new husband (Jason Clarke).

That seems simple enough doesn’t it? Except from there we get twist after twist, symbolic image after symbolic image, and each is as ridiculous as the last. The film goes into ludicrously laughable territory, yet astutely believes that it’s being deep or poetic.  As McConaughey’s character drinks his life away and contemplates the meaning of his existence – the point of his need to catch a big fish – he is told by his neighbours that he needs to catch the fish in his mind…

The film’s biggest problem, outside of its scattershot narrative, is its misplaced overconfidence. It seems to have this notion that it’s mind-boggling and challenging, but it lacks the self-awareness to acknowledge its own absurdity in either its setup or its eventual twists. I’m all for wacky premises – bizarre movies like Spirited Away and Boredom in Brno are my bread and butter – but the film seems to be orchestrating these out of left field twists just because it can. It feels like artsy showing-off rather than consideration to theme or story. Any thought put into theme isn’t in how to share it with the audience, but in how to gloat about them, and rub them in our faces.

It’s the kind of film that often makes my blood boil, but the vastness of its delusion is what overwhelms me most. Hindered by such a weak and conceited script, I struggle to imagine any version of this that I would be able to take seriously.

If that didn’t sound irritating enough, it also features godawful writing, and stale performances from not one, but two Oscar winners in McConaughey and Hathaway. The dialogue goes between crass (“grab me some $10 ass”) and pretentious (“What I have in my hands may change your life”) like a playground swing. The characters are so drab and/or unlikeable that we find ourselves at least disengaged, and at most yelling at the screen for them to shut up.

The acting isn’t much better. Clarke chews uncomfortable scenery as the doomed to die abusive husband, who is a caricature of a villain in the purest form through painfully juvenile dialogue and eye rolling mannerisms. Meanwhile, Hathaway seems bored to be there, playing the role as pokerfaced as can be. Although, given the hilariously awkward number of times she casually refers to Clarke as Daddy, I actually commend Hathaway for being able to maintain a straight face. This is more than I can say for McConaughey. Whenever he isn’t once again doing the tortured soul routine he’s been mastering for years, he spends an awful lot of time screaming into the sky. After seeing the film, I can sympathise.

Pretty visuals and arguable ambition does little to distract us from the sheer buffoonery of the film. It’s a slog that falsely assumes it’s clever and layered when it is in fact hollow and shallow. It’s so full of itself in spite of being constructed and thoughtout so poorly. It’s the kind of film that often makes my blood boil, but the vastness of its delusion is what overwhelms me most. Hindered by such a weak and conceited script, I struggle to imagine any version of this that I would be able to take seriously.

I hated Serenity, but there’s admittedly an element of having to see it to believe it here. I don’t want to recommend it, because it’s rubbish, but it’s hard to share or indulge in the full extent of its outlandish insanity without going into spoilers. I leave it up to you dear reader if you choose to spin the barrel and pull the trigger with this one. It features plenty of stills of McConaughey’s bum so take that as you will.

What Men Want – ★★☆☆☆

What Men Want is a loose remake of the 2000 Nancy Meyers film What Women Want, and it proves to be just as uninspired. Sure, it has its occasional laughs, and its reversal of genders opens the door to fun, and arguably compelling, possibilities. But it relies far too much on formulas and tropes, effectively undermining those possibilities.

Taraji P. Hensen of Hidden Figures plays Ali Davis, a successful sports agent who feels overshadowed by the mediocre male agents around her. Being denied a position on the executive board of the company only cements her feelings of envy and wrath. During a hen do with her friends she visits a psychic, believing it to be a hoax. The next day however she finds that she is now able to read the thoughts of all men around her. Using this to her advantage she vows to sign off a rising basketball star to catch the respect of her colleagues and potentially connect with a male partner (because where would films like this be without a romantic subplot?).

There is potential in this setup. Comically speaking there’s a lot of opportunities, and there’s also room for much needed character growth and relatability now that Ali has been armed with power she otherwise wouldn’t have access too. Sadly the film only takes advantage a handful of times. There’s the occasional snappy line, and there are some sentimental moments that work. I especially liked its even handed approach when it comes to both its female and male characters, as it does its best to portray characters as individuals rather than a collective group, the strongest case being Aldis Hodge’s Will, a single father who serves as a love interest for Ali, and a man who values honour and integrity above ego and short-term pleasure.

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But I found the movie dully underwhelming overall. I respect the film’s motives, but its premise gets worn thin quickly.  This is due to the conveyer belt fashion the film approaches it with. While the ideas may be present, it follows the formula all too closely. She obtains this power and exploits it for personal gain, causing all sorts of hijinks that eventually result in rifts between her, her friends, and her lover, only for her to fix it with the obligatory lesson of the movie.

Done to death doesn’t cut it. Plus, the way the film’s gimmick is utilised feels off to me. Not only is the sound editing attributed to this gimmick beyond awful – the inner thoughts may as well have been channelled via jet engine as it certainly shared the decibels – but virtually every thought Ali listens in to is derogatory, humiliating, or both. I know those thoughts are required to advance the plot, but each thought Ali listens in to feels mechanical or oversold. Nobody seems to ponder what they’ll have for lunch or what bus to catch on the way home. It’s all sex, sports, and embarrassing secrets. It comes off as extremely contrived, even for an idea as well-worn as this one.

I just didn’t find the film that funny either. Honestly, I think that’s what this all comes down to. It can have whatever messages and ideas it wants, but a comedy like this has to first and foremost make you laugh. I only managed a few chuckles. It makes the same mistake many modern comedies do, using perversion, shrieking, and one liners as humour, when the punchlines are that they are merely perversion, shrieking and one liners. It’s very bland comedy that rarely worked for me.

The one consistent strength is Hensen’s performance. She has incredible range, and her delivery, often over the top, helps propel otherwise mundane comedy into something worthy of a laugh. Any of the more emotional aspects she sells splendidly too, even if they’re predictabaly mechanic. Sadly though, Hensen’s charisma and acting prowess isn’t enough to save this product, resulting in a film with good intentions, but not enough narrative or comedic substance to keep it afloat. A disappointment to say the least.

Fisherman’s Friends – ★★☆☆☆

A part of me wants to go easy on Fisherman’s Friends, to just write it off as a feel good comedy drama that does its job sufficiently and move on with my life. Its heart is in the right place and it has no shortage of appeal. But I just feel like I’ve seen this kind of film way too many times. If it wasn’t based on a true story I’d probably dismiss it as another run of the mill endeavour, which is real shame given the talent of the people the film is about.

Set in the Cornish town of Port Isaac, music agent Danny Anderson (Daniel Mays) is on holiday with three fellow agents, aka our cartoonish antagonists. While there he spots the local fishermen/coastguard of the town, consisting mostly of middle aged to elderly men, including Jim (James Purefoy), Jago (David Hayman) and Leadville (I, Daniel Blake’s Dave Johns). They are singing angelically together. So angelically that Danny tries to convince them to sign on for a record. From there, as he starts to appreciate the everyday lives of the fishermen and fall for Jim’s daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), Danny begins to learn the value of community and friendship over the self-serving ways of his past self.

Writing this review, I find myself quite conflicted. There’s some serious drawbacks to the film as a whole that stops me from really endorsing it. But there’s also a lot to admire about it too. I like the ideas it’s trying to promote, and while the characters are a bit cookie cutter for me personally, I do think they’re written well enough that they embolden such ideas. However, the characters work best because of the actors, all of whom are enthusiastic and share charming chemistry together via snappy, cutting banter. Daniel Mays is an actor with considerable range (anyone who hasn’t seen it should seek out Two for Joy, an overlooked film he acted in last year), and he works with the role of Danny marvellously, weaving a delicate balance between fish out of water and self-reflecting observer. The various actors of the fishermen also provide the strongest dynamic, even if half of them get overlooked in favour of others. Then again, if one of those others is Dave Johns then I don’t mind.

I think your enjoyment of the film will depend entirely on how forgiving you are of its lack of originality or subtlety.

Furthermore the film’s keen love for sea shanties and the strength of community can be quite addicting at the best of times. It’s easy to derive a sense of benevolent comradery from the way each character interacts with each other, and the budding charm of their companionships is hard not to appreciate. There are many touching or funny moments that come purely from characters sharing pints and stories. Add on suave singing and foot tapping music and we have a film with plenty of allure for the right audience member. For many, this will be more than enough.

My problems with the film lie in the way the story unfolds. If it wasn’t based on a true story then I’d be certain that it was a mathematical formula on screen. In the end, the film is more about Danny then the Fisherman’s Friends, and his arc is a basic come around story where the arrogant cynic learns through the unity of others the value of human connection and hard work, etc. This eventually leads to misunderstandings and rifts to flood the third act with, all whilst going up against pompous suits in the form of Danny’s colleagues who add very little to the experience outside of being narrative obstacles.

It’s ironic that there’s a moment in the film where Danny defends his decision to sign on the Fisherman’s Friends as he believes that they have a spark of passion that is being lost. It’s ironic because if the story here didn’t rely on so many clichés and dramatic contrivances, then I think that same spark of passion that made the original Fisherman’s Friends so memorable would come through superbly. By playing it safe in this way it loses a lot of its flair. But then again, it’s still relatively charming all things considered. I think your enjoyment of the film will depend entirely on how forgiving you are of its lack of originality or subtlety.

I’ve flip-flopped between two and three stars throughout the entirety of this review. Realistically though, I’m somewhere in between when it comes to Fisherman’s Friends. It’s times like this when I hate having to assign films definitive grades. After all, I’m only sitting in a screening room and watching the film. I have it easy compared to the filmmakers. Besides, who am I to define the quality of someone else’s hard work? I’m going with two stars however for I thought the film was merely okay when all is said and done. Perfectly watchable, and perfectly accessible, but a bit too redundant for my tastes personally. I advise seeking it out and forming your own opinion though, if this seems like your kind of film, as it has been doing better with general audiences as far as I can see. If you check it out, then I hope you connect with it much better then I ultimately did.

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