The dark comedy squanders skilled performers on serviceable laughs.
Near the homestretch of John Slattery’s small-town dipshit crime saga, Maggie Moore(s), a police chief (Jon Hamm), chides his colorfully quippy co-worker (Nick Mohammed) with the overly direct criticism that he has “no concept of when it’s ok to tell a joke.” It’s an understandable retort given the morbidity of their current case—two women with the same name gruesomely killed a few days apart, one dispatched in a way that could be legally described as murder by arson.
A snide pre-script assures viewers, “some of this actually happened,” as the story only minutely connects to the still unsolved real-life murders of two Houston women, Mary Lou Henderson Morris, and Mary McGinnis. The warning also represents an ongoing cinematic treatment of stranger-than-fiction crimes. Think of the whole subgenre of films where a motley group of underdogs and nobodies flounder to ghastly ends in disasters of their own making.
Call it Coen Brothers-lite as categorical shorthand. Certainly, that’s the intention with Paul Bernbaum’s affably gratuitous, irony-laden dialogue, which also evokes pinches of other crude Americana poets like Elmore Leonard or Flannery O’Connor. Bernbaum’s previous CV includes another crime-story oddity, Hollywoodland. Even more fascinatingly, he also had a hand in the storytelling of beloved millennial cult Disney Channel Movie series Halloweentown. Combined with Slattery–whose debut was the stacked neo-noir God’s Pocket–the film seems to have a good team at the helm.
But our police chief, Jordan Sanders’ (Hamm) somber expository introduction in a creative writing class (complete with the word “Theme” on the blackboard) not only belies Maggie Moore(s)’ approach to character. It also cutely exposes the film’s inability to fold together its disparate pieces without a gift-wrapped structure. It’s an understandable concession considering that the full arc of a meet-cute/amateur detective story with a busybody neighbor Rita (Tina Fey) comes amongst a self-consciously dum-dum epic involving pedophiles, deaf hitmen, and supposedly reformed neo-nazis.
The corkboard lining those players together is surprisingly linear and neat. The gaps tighten as a few smoking guns reveal themselves at set intervals and with their own poetic justice. The stale bread crumbs throughout are sometimes irritatingly tagline-ready. Still, the talented cast soft-sell most of the superficial quirkiness. That keeps Maggie Moore(s) from slipping into Drowning Mona or Lucky Numbers territory.
Call it Coen Brothers-lite as categorical shorthand.
Still, the top-line reunion of Fey and Hamm hums with the easy chemistry of platonic high school sweethearts. Plus, it features a reliable roster of male character actors like Micah Stock, Christopher Denham, Happy Andersen, and Derek Basco. They embellish a series of podunk caricatures with the menace, believable idiocy, and tone-deaf flailing. It gives the town the feel of a three-ring circus. Unfortunately, the only woman character granted a modicum of dignity is Fey.
There’s a genuine pathos to be mined here, whether by hewing closer to the true story or delving deeper into Fey and Hamm’s pathetic romance. Instead, it’s only something serviceable from a bunch of talented people. Something that doesn’t break the illusion of a quirky town murder mystery. But it would be much harder to laugh at that.
Maggie Moore(s) can be found in theatres and on VOD now.