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MOVIE REVIEW

'Serious Moonlight'

Meg Ryan takes husband Timothy Hutton hostage to prevent his walking out on her in this comedy directed by Cheryl Hines. The movie feels like a tribute to its screenwriter, the late Adrienne Shelly.

December 04, 2009|By BETSY SHARKEY | Film Critic
  • Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton star.
Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton star. (Magnolia Pictures )

There is something weirdly endearing about Meg Ryan's woman in denial in "Serious Moonlight," blissfully confident that she can reclaim her husband's heart despite the mistress she's just discovered, despite the divorce he is demanding. He rages, she's understanding; he roars, she bakes cookies; he negotiates, she shows their wedding slides.

Of course there is the small matter of Ian, the cheating spouse played by Timothy Hutton. He is forced to wage this battle while tightly duct-taped to a chair, then a toilet (be careful what you ask a woman on the verge . . .), all while nursing a bump on the head courtesy of a well-aimed flowerpot.

Could this really be sweet, adorable Meg Ryan? "Sleepless in Seattle" Meg? "You've Got Mail" Meg? Yes - that Meg. And she uses every bit of that flirty, smiling, blue-eyed innocence that we first fell in love with to diffuse the fact that she seems to have gone completely psycho. At least in "The War of the Roses," that classic lethal whack at an extremely dicey divorcing duo, Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas were both armed.

It's been a long time since Ryan has had a romantic comedy that gave her room to move and though the scale is smaller here, the humor blacker and Ryan well beyond the first blush phase, you'll be glad that "Serious Moonlight" came along.

One of several finished scripts left by promising filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered in late 2006 just months before her indie hit "Waitress" would draw rave reviews, "Serious Moonlight" also feels like a tribute movie, that is to say more reverential and less polished than it might have been had Shelly been able to direct as planned.

Still, one of the pleasures of the film -- from conception to character to the conversations that fill the scenes -- is the savvy and off-center way Shelly had of crafting troubled relationships. Thankfully, "Waitress" co-star Cheryl Hines has not lost sight of that in making her feature directing debut.

"Serious Moonlight" takes apart a single day in a 13-year marriage that is in serious trouble. Louise (Ryan) and Ian make up our 40-ish crisis couple -- Louise just doesn't know about the crisis yet. Ian has planned the perfect weekend at their country home -- a final tryst with his young honey Sara (Kristen Bell) before they head off to Paris and a quick kiss-off note for the wife to find when she shows up a day later.

But in life, as in comedy, timing is everything and Shelly is about to give us her Al Davis interpretation of a woman wronged -- don't get mad, don't get even, just win, baby. There are great moments as Louise puts this strategy into play, her casual chat with the other woman a study in female one-upmanship at its manipulative best.

Of course there are always risks of things going wrong in these sorts of power struggles and the filmmakers keep turning the tables again and again, often with the help of Todd (Justin Long), the gardener who comes to mow the lawn. There's nothing that gives hope to a hostage like a third party showing up, and the disaffected irony that we've seen Long hone over time -- the bartending relationship guru of "He's Just Not That Into You" comes to mind -- is worked in a few new ways here.

If you've forgotten just what an excellent physical comedian Ryan is, look for a few neatly executed moves in the bathroom when Louise agrees to a temporary break in the talks.

Packed in all the twists and turns, the slapstick and pratfalls, Louise and Ian pick through many of the reasons any marriage fails, which is what ultimately makes the comedy smart. Anyone who's been in a long-term relationship is likely to find one or two that will make them squirm a little as well as laugh.

"Serious Moonlight" has its flaws, but then what marriage doesn't? You can feel Hines' comic talents, usually on display in front of the camera (most notably as wife to Larry David in "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), but you can also feel her pull back, and in those moments things get a little messy. The tribute problem again. Next time you hope she'll feel free to put her prints all over the film. This time, though, it was for love.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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