The problem with releasing posthumous or unfinished work is that often the deceased artist's song, novel or script just isn't ready to see light of day. For completists they're small nuggets of insight, hints of where an artist might have taken his work next. For the rest of us, they are underdeveloped curiosities. Ultimately, success is determined by the size of the artist's fan base.
I'm not sure the public was clamoring for another Adrienne Shelly movie. Yes, Waitress was a clever, well-crafted film that evolved the romantic comedy genre beyond the pabulum of whatever Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston will be pratfalling their way through next. And there's little doubt that her sudden murder was beyond tragic. But Shelly was a filmmaker just beginning to find her feet, and so filming one of her supposedly two unproduced scripts verbatim probably wasn't the best idea. Though Serious Moonlight has a few interesting ideas and observations, it's a stagy, overwritten, domestic comedy that's short on laughs and probably better suited for the theater.
Meg Ryan plays Louise, a type-A Manhattan lawyer who arrives a day early at her country home and discovers that husband Ian (Timothy Hutton) is about to run off with 23-year-old Sara (Kristen Bell). Instead of breaking down or exploding, however, she knocks Ian out, binds him with duct tape to the toilet and declares that she will only release him when he loves her once again. Things get more complicated (and decidedly less wacky) when Ian's young mistress and a larcenous gardener (Justin Long) arrive on the scene, leaving the couple fearing for their safety.
Clearly a labor of love for Shelly's husband, producer Andy Ostroy, the film is both likable and well made, with first-time director Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) doing a professional job. Unfortunately, she's hamstrung because three-quarters of the action is set in the couple's bathroom and many of Shelly's monologues are awkwardly scripted. Given the caustic pluck of Waitress, it's obvious Shelly would've refined and reshaped her script during the production process. By remaining completely faithful to the text as written, Hines and company have created a clumsy and predictable drama whose dialogue only occasionally sparks with personality. Even the film's dark turn and potentially interesting twist at the end are undone by inelegant scripting.
The cast is certainly game for Shelly's loopy parts, but it's the supporting Bell and Long who fare best in thanklessly two-dimensional roles. Both give it their all but deserve a lot better. Hutton, a typically understated actor, tries to provide Ian with a soul, but except for an unwieldy monologue, isn't given much beyond the standard issue frustrations of a cheatin' hubby. Which leaves Meg Ryan, who bites into her role with gusto but lacks the chops to finesse her character's warring desires. Charming as Ryan can be, the part requires some tricky emotional reversals, and they are ill-served by her regrettable facial surgeries.
What becomes clear after viewing both Waitress and Serious Moonlight is that Adrienne Shelly liked to tinge her homespun comedies with a bit of darkness. It's that unconventional twist on otherwise domestic romance that suggested she was a talent to watch. But like most artists who pass before they've mastered their voice, she hadn't had time to smooth out the cracks, and here they are all too evident.
Opens Friday, Dec. 4, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.