Film Review: Serious Moonlight

Amusing black comedy about an avenging wife features a strong cast directed by Cheryl Hines.

You could call Serious Moonlight, snappily written by the late actress/writer/director Adrienne Shelly (Waitress), a five-and-dime War of the Roses. This is meant as a compliment, as the film, like its similarly themed forebear, is a rollicking, nasty ride into the disintegration of a marriage pairing spoiled, upscale spouses. Helped by kind reviews, the film should pull in upscale art-house patrons. And Waitress fans too will be well-served.

Not just a frivolous jousting match, Serious Moonlight has its serious side as an intelligent peephole into the psychological and sexual dynamics that can drive a once loving, loyal couple to the edge of criminality.

Cast here is king. Meg Ryan is terrific as high-powered Manhattan lawyer Louise, who, visiting a day early the country house she and husband Ian (Timothy Hutton) share, discovers the premises strewn with lovely flower pedals. This, she soon learns after a startled Ian arrives, is in anticipation of his young mistress Sara (Kristen Bell), whom he expects to whisk off to Paris the following day. Not a nice farewell gesture to his wife of 13 years.

Maybe we’ve seen Louise before, in characters played by Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep or others, but Ryan makes her a ballsy, believable bitch to behold. Upon her discovery, Louise takes action by duct-taping Ian and holding him prisoner in the house, hoping he’ll come to his senses. The back-and-forth that ensues isn’t just a war of the sexes but a war of wills, as Ian tries to talk his way out of a bad situation and Louise holds firm, even baking the cookies Ian adores.

What sends the plot further spinning is the arrival of the opportunistic, lowlife landscaper Todd (Justin Long), who quickly takes advantage of the situation by tying up all parties so that he and his cronies can trash the premises and party. Also late to the scene and tied up in the bathroom with the sparring spouses is Sara, expecting a romantic country prelude to the escape to Paris.

Hutton shines as the roving, besieged husband who learns in a heartbeat that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And Bell does honorably with her all-too-familiar hot female spoiler character. In her feature directing debut, Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) oversees a handsome production and moves the story vigorously.

With its single locale and few characters, the film could easily have worked as a play. Some situations, like a falling pot rendering Ian unconscious, strain credibility. But overall, Serious Moonlight is a nuttily engaging tale of betrayal and, perhaps, redemption.