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'Serenity': It's all Just a Big

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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Viewing director Steven Knight's "Serenity, a film consumed with the notion that things aren't what they appear to be, I was uncomfortably reminded that I don't like to figure things out. I don't do puzzles, don't fancy mystery yarns unless they're old classics or approach the inventiveness of "The Usual Suspects" (1995), and if you ask me when train B will pass Train A if both leave their original locations at so and so time, I'll excuse myself, lie that I'll be right back, and head for the veranda for something less complicated, like a cocktail and maybe a few of those little hot dog hors d' oeuvres.
 
So, if you're looking for someone who might prove useful in determining just where the blackbird turned up after Sam "sends over" Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon's" (1941) final scene, I'm not your boy. However, if you're in the market for a moderately foppish film critic who obscures the subject and traditionally avoids the issue when saddled with reviewing a movie that he feels is underserving of serious scrutiny, you've landed on the right square.
 
I did the same sort of thing a few decades back when I also wrote a restaurant review column. Hesitant to hurt the prospects of a local eatery, especially after just one visit, whenever experiencing a less than impressive meal I found solace in tangential gossip and jibber jabber.
 
Y'know, things like, "Saw the Rabinowitzes chowing down during my visit to Henri's Pretention Chophouse. Their son Trent, the little shaver, made honor roll for the sixth marking cycle in a row …. says he hopes to one day attend Cornell and study ornithology. Never can have enough ornithologists, I always say."
 
But while I'd like to think there was an altruistic bent to my essentially accidental restaurant reviewing, in the case of films deemed unworthy, my declination is more about not wishing to grant such celluloid the right time of day. It arrogantly suggests that said fare should only be ingested under one circumstance: Your much anticipated, secret hideaway vacation reservations got screwed up and you're relegated to a dreadful cabin containing only Nancy Drew books, all of which you've read. You've already manicured your nails, shined your shoes, and, because you're so disappointed in the foul-up, can't get to sleep. P.S.: There's crumbs in the bed. Looks like from Graham crackers. And anyway, the 16-inch tube TV gets only one station and it's showing "Serenity." Your best hope is that it'll cause you to fall asleep.
 
Still, all of this pompously espoused, week No. 12 of the Crandall & Erickson Film Critic Correspondence Course that secured me the position I now enjoy, aptly instructs, "Make sure you say at least something about the film you're reviewing." Furthermore, acknowledging the wisdom of H.L. Mencken's thought that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, there is hardly a movie ever made that didn't have at least one person attesting to its profound, life-changing influence
 
Therefore, lest the short shrift I've heretofore afforded "Serenity" stunts the intellectual progress of some good citizen who might otherwise see the film and one day save our democracy from the current gang of polluting opportunists who have all but backed up their trucks to Fort Knox, I patriotically redress my dilly-dallying as follows.
 
Once upon a time, a screenwriter penning a fantasy that painted him into a corner could flee the strictures of his premise and weave a magical ending by suddenly having his protagonist awake from a dream, i.e., "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). Now, as employed in "Serenity," the Brave New Cyber World has created a newfangled escape clause for fiction writers needing to explain away flights of fancy for which there is no logical explanation, at least not in our old, plain, three-dimensional world.
 
To tell what that latest bit of literary gimmickry is would divulge "Serenity's" surprise ending.
 
So suffice it to note, it isn't until the film's midway point that we realize things aren't what we thought they were, and that we've been shanghaied into a suspense yarn. Becoming hip to the jive at about the same time, Matthew McConaughey's Baker Dill, a commercial fisherman who's an amalgam of Captain Ahab and the title character in "The Old Man and The Sea" (1958), begins to question his very own identity.
 
Mix in a subplot about a former wife, Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway), beseeching the already rather tortured soul to kill her abusive, megalomaniac husband (Jason Clarke) for $10 million and add hints that Dill might be suffering from PTSD, which could explain everything. Not! But these and a few other drifts of story implication are only meant to set you up for the deus ex machina conclusion cynically informing that everything you've witnessed thus far was a ruse, and therefore a waste of your time.
 
"Serenity," rated R, is an Aviron Pictures release directed by Steven Knight and stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jason Clarke. Running time: 106 minutes

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