Many women would probably like to duct-tape their unfaithful mates to a toilet bowl, but watching it happen isn’t quite as funny as it sounds — at least, not in “Serious Moonlight,” actress Cheryl Hines’ adaptation of the late Adrienne Shelly’s screenplay. A less-than-frothy domestic showdown starring Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton, it owes as much to Edward Albee as to Nora Ephron, with an occasional nod to “A Clockwork Orange.” Sentimental interest in the work of Shelly (“Waitress”), who was murdered in 2006, will likely find the film a theatrical home, but it’s far too brittle and shrill to win much love.
There’s a marital Armageddon going down in the home of Louise (Ryan) and Ian (Hutton), two unhappy suburbanites with different agendas, although only one of them seems to know it. Louise is a high-powered attorney with a cell phone permanently attached to her ear (a Bluetooth being far less effective as a film prop) and is apparently oblivious to the fact her marriage is in such disrepair that Ian would be planning an escape to Paris with a much younger girlfriend, Sara (Kristen Bell). When Ian refuses to listen to reason, such as it is, Louise knocks him out with a flower pot, trusses him up, tapes him to the toilet and tries to argue him back into loving her.
Helmer Hines (best known for her acting in “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) exhibits very little visual flair in relating the meltdown of Ian and Louise — the framing is stilted and predictable. But the premise of the script, which seems more suited to the stage, is so spatially constrained it really doesn’t offer Hines much opportunity.
“Serious Moonlight” takes place largely in the couple’s upstairs bathroom, while drunken burglars led by Todd the gardener (Justin Long), who also ties up Louise, ransack the downstairs area. When Ian misses his plane, an irate Sara arrives, and is likewise bound and, unfortunately, not gagged. The verbal three-way should have been a lot wittier than it is, although Ryan manages, through sheer timing, to turn a lot of lines into laughs.
The twist at the end of the film absolves Hines for some of what has come before, although it’s still too little, too late. It doesn’t make the film’s uglier aspects any prettier — after Todd has taken the women hostage, there’s a palpable threat of rape and even some molestation, with an impotent Ian screaming from the toilet bowl. Given the presence of Hines, Ryan and the legacy of Shelly, who always brought a bright comedic touch to things (including “Waitress,” which was sometimes serious, but mirthful), “Serious Moonlight” will be perceived as romantic comedy. It doesn’t qualify — and makes one wonder, too, if the screenplay was really finished.