There’s a special magic in watching a movie with friends. But even better than discovering something fun, thrilling, or fucked up as a group, is the spiky joy of knowingly sitting your loved ones down for a movie they may well hate. You know, the kind of movie where, just when you think you know what’s happening, it reveals a make-or-break twist that viewers will either love or loathe.
For me, this movie is Serenity. No, not that one — not the one with sexy space cowboys. I’m talking about the 2019 erotic thriller, which stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway and boasts a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Written and directed by Steven Knight, this Serenity features the familiar neo-noir trappings of a hardened man’s man (McConaughey in glower mode), his glamorous and treacherous ex (Anne Hathaway living her femme fatale fantasy), and…a giant tuna named Justice.
Here’s where I’ll entreat you to stop thinking and just watch Serenity, because no matter how you think this story of a fisherman and his unhappy old flame is going to go, you’re wrong. And being wrong in this instance is wildly fun. This leads me back to my friends and a pair of movie showtimes that I’ll treasure til my final days.
As a film critic, I get early access to new movies, and so it was in a nearly empty screening room weeks ahead of its release that I first discovered the wonders of Serenity. While most of the others sat in (perhaps) stunned silence for much of the movie, I wailed with laughter, gasps, and more laughter — because Serenity is boldly bonkers. (Shout out to the other critic who was also cackling in the dark!)
I admire a big swing, but I love one that risks making its audience throw popcorn at the screen.
It’s hard to be sure when I knew I was on its wavelength. Maybe it was when McConaughey’s snarling Baker Dill (yes, that’s the fisherman’s name, go with it) announces that he’s named the trophy fish he’s determined to hook “Justice.” Maybe it was when Hathaway walks into his dodgy bar (à la Casablanca?) and flashes a diamond ring that serves as a lighthouse, radiant and warning. But by the time a bespectacled Jeremy Strong turns up to Dill’s humble shack to break the movie in two with its absolutely wild reveal, I knew I was smitten. I admire a big swing, but I love one that risks making its audience throw popcorn at the screen.
I walked out of that theater that first time buzzing with excitement. But I also carried a smidge of sadness, which grew as I realized I’d never see Serenity for the first time ever again. I knew its secrets now. I value them, but they’d never be quite as shocking. But then, like a clap of lightning, it hit me: I could get the vicarious thrill of watching others discover this movie’s madness.
When a colleague and friend asked if I wanted to go again to another press screening, I said yes without hesitation. I took a seat next to her so I could angle myself subtly to watch her expression when Strong enters the hut to snap minds. She knew I loved this movie. And when she shot me a deeply annoyed stare, it was because she’d realized why I loved it. The rush was incredible. Afterward, we discussed — or maybe argued — about the movie for hours, debating whether it was good, bad, or so bad it’s good! But I wasn’t through, because opening weekend was approaching.
I don’t know how it started. Probably something I said on social media sparked my more cinephilic friends to reach out. Maybe I even initiated the idea of a group trip to see Serenity. The origins are lost to me, but it resulted in something I’ll never forget.
Credit: G Bartholomew/IM Global/Kobal/Shutterstock
Five of my more adventurous film-loving friends joined me on a Saturday morning to see Serenity. They knew I loved it for its abject lunacy. They wanted to learn its secrets for themselves (and maybe get a fix on just how judged I should be for my excitement). The theater was pretty busy for the early hour, though our fellow audience members had 30 to 40 years on us. Clearly, even in the chilliness of January, where Serenity had been marooned, Hathaway and McConaughey still had friends in the elders of Manhattan.
As the lights went down, I tittered with anticipation and even passed around a bottle of rum I’d hidden in my bag for the occasion. I’m not normally a rum-in-the-morning person or even a sneaking-booze-into-cinemas person, but this was a special occasion.
My friends laughed at my excitement, all save for one, whose eyes narrowed as he doubted his life choices. Throughout the movie, I not only enjoyed the over-the-top sensuality and cartoonish intensity of the lead performers, who absolutely understood what this movie is, but also the looks of shock, wonder, and confusion of my friends. Every time one of them giggled, gasped, or guffawed, I was elated. Then came Jeremy Strong, and oh! THE BLISS OF DISCOVERY!
When we walked out, I quickly learned none of my friends were as enamored with this movie as I was. Most of them seemed low-key annoyed, as if I had tricked them. But I’ve never had a poker face of any sort, so they soon realized that to love me is to accept the occasional Serenity in your hangtime. As one of them put it, “I won’t say you’ve never recommended a bad movie, but you never have recommended a boring movie.”
I’ll take it.
Another thing I took? A commemorative photo. It’s a selfie from the theater’s lobby. Surrounding me are my five friends, whose faces express a range of disdain, amusement, and horror, while I — closest to the camera and so overlit and gigantic — am beaming like it’s Christmas morning.