My World of Flops All Wrong, All Wrong, All Wrong Case File #122/My Year of Flops II 20: Serenity

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When I was a strange, sad little boy I had a characteristically strange, sad inside joke with my strange, often sad single father. He would insist that I call him “Pa” like the son on The Rifleman, his favorite television show, called his old man. 

My father also liked to pretend that he and I bonded over Norman Rockwellesque fishing trips rather than our shared depression, anxiety, poverty and loneliness. In the real world, we were desperate outsiders just barely hanging on but in my dad’s imagination he was my Pa and I was his Sonny Boy and every weekend we’d pack up the cooler with cold beverages, stock up on bait and then head out on our boat and see what we could catch. 

I probably don’t need to tell you that we never actually went fishing. It was just an idea, and a strange and sad one at that.

Those melancholy memories rushed back to me watching writer-director Steven Knight’s astonishing 2019 motion picture Serenity. Serenity is about many things. One of them, improbably enough, is about the strange, sad, intense, almost exclusively fishing-based psychological connection between a sad, intense, lonely little boy like the child I used to be and a depressed, hard-luck father who has endured more than his share of misfortune, not unlike my dad. 

That’s probably why I found myself choked up a little at the film’s final scene despite not being invested in any of the characters. There’s just something a boy, a dad and fishing that gets to me regardless of context. 

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The curious thing, or rather one of the infinite number of curious things about Serenity is that the boy, Patrick Zariakas (Rafael Sayegh), and Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), have this intense, overwhelmingly fishing-based connection despite living in different states and inhabiting different worlds, in more ways than one. Baker hasn’t seen Patrick in years yet their psychic fish connection remains strong.

Yes, Serenity is about a lot of weird things. You could certainly argue that it is about WAY too many weird things. And in a sense, Serenity is about EVERYTHING. As in, what’s really going on with reality? You ever thought about that? I mean, have you ever REALLY just sat the fuck down, possibly with a big-ass spliff and thought about, like, “What IS reality? What if we’re all just a dream of that autistic kid from the last episode from St. Elsewhere?”

Yes, Serenity is about many things I cannot go into without spoiling one of the most batshit twists in the history of batshit twists. 

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Let’s just say that watching this torrid, Florida-set Neo-Noir about the world’s sexiest, scuzziest fisherman- Lothario (Matthew McConaughey) and his quest to catch his fish of destiny and/or murder the monster who is terrorizing his son and ex-wife I found myself thinking that the movie was so utterly insane that if the filmmakers were to introduce ghosts, space aliens or talking animals into the mix it wouldn’t make it any weirder or more ridiculous than it already is. 

Halfway through Serenity something happens that makes the introduction of the aforementioned ghosts, space aliens or talking animals look positively restrained and understated by comparison. I can’t go into it without spoiling Serenity for you, and we, as a culture, have made an unspoken pact not to reveal the endings of either Avengers: Endgame or Serenity.

The first one is a little more important, and affects more people, as Endgame might end up the most commercially successful film of all time whereas the folks blessed and cursed with releasingSerenity dropped it into theaters with next to nothing in the way of advertising and promotion, arguing, "As much as we love this film and still hope it finds its audience, we tested and retested the film — with audiences and critics alike — and sadly, the data demonstrated that the film was not going to be able to perform at our initial expectations, so we adjusted our budget and marketing tactics accordingly.”

The distributor was acknowledging that while they thought the movie was just swell the public and critics had let them know in no uncertain terms that they had a real, world-class, historic stinkeroo on their hands. Despite their “love” of the film, no one could deny it stunk worse than three day old fish lying out in the sun and the only smart move, the only real move, ultimately, was to abandon it and move the fuck on. 

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It’s easy to see why Serenity failed miserably with the general public and hit a home run for lovers of camp and trash cinema. It’s fucking bonkers, and while I could compare it to other films that change genres halfway in it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in both a good and bad way. 

A brooding, glowering Matthew McConaughey stars as  our moody, enigmatic protagonist Baker Dill. Because he’s played by McConaughey, he’s sexy and desirable enough to pick up walking-around money having sex with Diane Lane’s character, the very definition nice work if you can get it. 

Baker is a sexy motherfucker but things have been going all-wrong, all-wrong, all-wrong in his wasted life for a very long time. Once upon a time he was a solider in the “war” and then a bunch of shady shit happened that led to him living and working in a Florida backwater called Plymouth Island that is a world upon itself. 

Baker is eking out a grubby living helping wealthy businessmen live out their fisherman fantasies onboard his boat. This is complicated by Baker’s obsession with capturing an elusive fish named Justice that. When his clients are on the verge of capturing Justice, a wild-eyed, obsessive Baker threatens to carve them up with a sharp knife if they get in the way of his all-consuming quest to get that fucking fish. 

Baker is looking at, the very least, an EXTREMELY negative Yelp review for his business along the lines of “Our captain was colorful and clearly a good sailor but he lost points for threatening to stab us to death if we interfered with him catching a fish he’s obsessed with. Three stars.” 

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This opening scene, where our hero and protagonist behaves like a violent maniac because he REALLY wants to catch particular fish establishes an appropriately melodramatic tone of feverish pulp intensity. My dad might have seen fishing as the ultimate wholesome family activity but in Serenity, it’s violent and creepy as fuck, the domain of crazed alpha males pursuing their dark obsessions down whatever weird detours they lead. 

It’s a testament to what a weird fucking movie this is that for its first twenty minutes or so Serenity, which was barely marketed as a sexy erotic thriller starring the hottest man on the planet, seems to be a movie about a dude trying to catch a fish. I came for a contemporary The Postman Always Rings Twice. I seemed to have accidentally ended up with The Scuzzy Yet Sexy Middle-Aged Man and the Sea. 

Then Anne Hathaway shows up looking painfully uncomfortable with a distractingly bad blonde dye job as Karen, Baker’s ex-wife and the mother of his son. The hopelessly miscast Hathaway comes off like a wholesome suburban mom cosplaying as a Film Noir damsel in distress. No matter how breathily Hathaway delivers her lines, she fatally does not convey danger or menace or slinky sexuality. 

In traditional femme fatale form, this troubled mother offers to pay a desperate man she has a sexual relationship with a large amount of money—ten million dollars cash—to murder Frank (Jason Clarke) her nightmare of a husband, who is abusing both her and Baker’s vulnerable, computer-and-fishing-obsessed son. Unlike conventional femme fatales, Karen works her way up to this offer by asking Baker questions like, “Back in the real world they got this thing called Facebook. Ever heard of it?” Baker hasn’t, which makes you wonder what world he’s in. Who the hell doesn’t know about Facebook in 2019? Later, we find out what world he’s living in. The answer might surprise you! 

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To make murder more appealing to Baker, Frank is maybe the most evil person in the world. He’s essentially the devil minus the horns, cloven hooves, nifty red suit and beef with God. How comically, cartoonishly evil is Frank? His idea of small talk involves asking Baker and his fellow fisherman Duke (Djimon Hounsou), who somewhat confusingly is obsessed with paying his granddaughter’s college tuition despite Honsou looking like an extremely well-preserved 40 year old, if it’s true that there’s a poor part of town where “little girls take it in the ass for ten dollars a pop.”

Lest we imagine that this horrible shit stain of a human being’s question is being merely rhetorical he tells a deeply unimpressed Baker and Duke, “I’m gonna head up there tonight and get some of that ten dollar ass.” 

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Killing a man like that is no crime. You kill a man like that, you’re doing the world a favor. 

Serenity is so utterly bizarre that for a while I wondered if Hathaway’s character and the fish Baker is trying to catch aren’t in cahoots with each other and involved in some manner of creepy inter-species fling. Fish-fucking isn’t too crazy for Serenity. Nothing is. If anything, it might not be crazy enough. 

Baker’s strange life grows even stranger when he meets Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), who introduces himself to Baker as a representative for a company that provides fisherman with the tools they need but is so fucking out of place in the stylized Noir world of Plymouth Island that his character alone tears a hole through the film’s “reality.” 

Reid is such an otherworldly creature that he does not just seem to have stumbled in from another film; he seems to have stumbled in from another world, another universe, another dimension. Reid’s weirdly milquetoast presence proves a game changer. 

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Serenity turns into an entirely different kind of movie halfway through. In that respect, I don’t blame the film’s distributors for giving up early rather than risk losing even more money trying to sell a movie as singularly insane as Serenity to the public without either spoiling the film’s twist or flagrantly misrepresenting it. 

The first half of Serenity exists in a hyper-stylized hardboiled universe that’s brazenly artificial, highly stylized and violently divorced from any known reality. It’s impossible to believe for reasons that eventually become apparent, making its unbelievability less a flaw than a feature of the film’s trippy approach to storytelling. 

I’m torn between giving Serenity a Fiasco rating for being such an astonishing, morbidly fascinating, utterly singular train wreck and making it a Secret Success because it’s so crazy that it really deserves to be seen by anyone with even the faintest appreciation of transcendently bad movies and bad movie culture. 

The straight world can have their successful, non-insane McConaughey vehicle like, I dunno, The Beach Bum? Okay that’s a bad example but definitely something I will cover for this column. Serenity belongs to us bad-movie lovers, just as the other Serenity belongs to Joss Whedon nerds. 

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Serenity seems well on its way to cult classic status. I’m writing this partially so that I can listen to the We Hate Movies episode on it without worrying about subconsciously borrowing any words or ideas. The We Hate Movies on Serenity is rumored to be an all-time classic and Knight’s epic boondoggle gives them everything in the world to work with. Serenity may have whiffed and whiffed hard at the box office and with critics but it’s blessed and cursed to live forever as a transcendently bad movie that needs to be seen to believed and even then remains wonderfully, ineffably, overwhelmingly unbelievable. 

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success 

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