Serenity and the Strangeness of Post-Oscar Acting Careers

Serenity Serenity

The baffling, insane thriller Serenity is the latest example of actors (Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, in this case) choosing strange roles after they find Oscar Gold.

For the 20 newly minted (or re-upped) Oscar nominees across the four acting categories, the release of this Friday’s profoundly strange thriller Serenity may qualify as a chilling vision of the future—if they’re even aware of its existence and have differentiated it from the other Serenity movie they also may not know anything about. Steven Knight’s new movie, not affiliated in the least with the TV show Firefly, stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. They have something in common beyond their previous co-starring roles in Interstellar: They both won Oscars this decade, just a year apart. Hathaway was Best Supporting Actress of 2012 (awarded in 2013) for Les Miserables, while McConaughey was Best Actor of 2013 (awarded in 2014) for Dallas Buyers Club.

Both actors won awards for roles that felt like natural extensions of their star personas, with some awards-friendly twists: Hathaway got to play the overachieving theater kid in a small part that gave her a showstopping song, imbued with a sense of tragedy not seen in her lighter roles; McConaughey got to flex his usual laid-back charm, but playing a man dying of AIDS. In some ways, these parts also played like accidental apexes of those personas, and the sense that another phase of their careers would soon begin. Post-Oscar careers have always been varied enough to inspire both major salary upticks and talk of an “Oscar curse.” But now that the movie-star market has receded in favor of superhero movies, animation, and other projects where a brand is the big star, established actors winning the big award feel more than ever like a career marker, rather than a major status shift.

If anything, an Oscar can now mean freedom to slow down, rather than a path to world domination. Since Hathaway and McConaughey won their awards, they’ve both laid relatively low, though her step back from the spotlight felt a little more intentional than his. She did a couple of indies (one of which, Colossal, happens to contain one of her best performances ever), took self-kidding supporting roles in Alice Through the Looking Glass (reprised from Alice in Wonderland) and Ocean’s 8, and made one traditional star vehicle in The Intern. McConaughey did a couple of prestigious-sounding epics that flopped (Free State of Jones; Gold), did a failed franchise play (The Dark Tower), and made a couple of indies of his own. Interstellar was their one, mutual big hit, an ambitious, auteur-driven sci-fi movie that a lot of people saw.

Now they’re back together for Serenity, which seems like a decision borne of freedom. Without its stars, this would be a curiosity—and it still is, but the presence of Hathaway and McConaughey makes it feel like a bigger, more brazen swing. McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a small-scale fishing-boat captain on a remote island. Dill is bedeviled by his obsession with landing a gigantic tuna, and forced to engage in some light male prostitution with a rich, horny local (Diane Lane) when he can’t make enough money from leading tourists on fishing trips. When his femme-fatale-looking ex Karen (Hathaway, introduced with a whoosh) materializes on the island with her wealthy, drunken, abusive lout of a husband (Jason Clarke) and a secret proposition for Dill: Take her husband fishing, and feed his worthless ass to the sharks. Dill considers it less for the money than for the opportunity to spare the son he had with Karen any further pain.

If Serenity was really just a warm-weather noir, it would be a strange one. When Karen alludes to Dill being her high school sweetheart and tracking him down after the reunion, you get the feeling they might be the only two stylized noir characters in their Facebook-using class year. Everyone in town knows everyone else’s business, and Dill’s tuna obsession feels less like an Elmore Leonard/Carl Hiaasen character quirk and more like it could lurch into cut-rate Moby Dick territory with just a few more tugs on the line.

But of course, this is all part of a system Knight has designed, a trick that’s impossible to hint at without blowing—as I realized from watching the movie, which does hint at it, repeatedly, to the point of dramatizing its twist in slow motion. It’s an agreeably nutty twist, and the movie isn’t boring to experience… at least until it reveals itself as better-suited to a Twilight Zone-type narrative, rather than a 105-minute feature. With that much time to filibuster its own plot, Serenity dead-ends well before it’s officially over.

How are its award-certified stars? Hard to say, really. McConaughey is both playing to type (drawling, fishing, jumping naked off a cliff) and pumping up his intensity (howling in anguish); it’s not that different from his stretching in Interstellar, with the notable exception of Interstellar being quite good. Hathaway, meanwhile, proves adept at a noir-dame routine that hews closest to her work in another Christopher Nolan movie, The Dark Knight Rises, with the notable exception of, well, you get the idea.

It’s entirely possible McConaughey and Hathaway would have been interested in Serenity, or something like it, without their Oscars. If anything, the movie might well owe its existence to their awards conferring a sense of prestige on a project that might otherwise prove too weird to get much attention. (Even with its stars, it was bumped from a fall release date into the dead of January.) It used to be that post-Oscar stumbles felt like failures to live up to some gold-plated standard; now, an oddball project that won’t make money or win awards feels like kind of a win just for keeping Hathaway and McConaughey off obligatory superhero duty. Ultimately, this kinda dumb, kinda fun movie speaks to a lack of careerist calculation in its actors’ choices. There’s no reason to do this movie unless you genuinely think it might be a good one.

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