Directed by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines from a script by the late Adrienne Shelly, the bitter comedy Serious Moonlight is meant to be both funny and painful, but manages only the latter. Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton (here billed as “Tim”) play a long-married couple whose union is on the verge of collapse, although only he knows it. When she walks into their country house and finds it strewn with rose petals, she assumes it’s a romantic surprise—which it is, but not for her. Hutton has laid out the floral display for his young mistress, Kristen Bell, and is busy scribbling a kiss-off note to the wife whose presence he can no longer stand. Inspired by a combination of determination and denial, Ryan refuses to accept her husband’s parting shot, and when he fails to succumb to her invocation of the marriage bonds, she clocks him with a flowerpot and duct-tapes him to a chair. Later, home invader Justin Long trusses up both of them in the bathroom.
Unfortunately, too much of Serious Moonlight is put across with similar finesse. The lightness of touch and finely honed performances that made Shelly’s swansong, Waitress, such a winsome delight are nowhere in evidence. Ryan and Hutton sprint past black-comic malice into genuine malevolence; the verbal barbs Hutton slings at his wife are so mean-spirited that Ryan’s continuing attachment to him seems delusional, and the movie’s investment in getting them back together seems utterly misplaced.
It’s possible what Shelly had in mind was a subversive poison-pen letter to the comedy of remarriage, a movie in which the leads end up with each other, even though viewers won’t want them to. But Hines’ direction is too lax and round-edged to pursue such a tricky objective, and Ryan isn’t about to turn her sweetheart image inside out. Hines has said part of getting the gig was agreeing not to change a word of Shelly’s script, a well-meant but egregiously wrong-headed stricture that leaves no room for adapting to the exigencies of production or the personalities of its stars. In essence, Serious Moonlight amounts to a staged reading, an honorable but ultimately misguided tribute to a woman who undoubtedly would have done more with her own words.