Review: ‘The Menu’ (2022), starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Judith Light and John Leguizamo

November 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cast members of “The Menu.” Pictured from left to right, in front: Judith Light, Reed Birney, Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, Paul Adelstein, Janet McTeer, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Yang, Aimee Carrero, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr and John Leguizamo. (Photo by Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures)

“The Menu” (2022)

Directed by Mark Mylod

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in an unnamed part of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the horror film “The Menu” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and Latinos and one African American) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Eleven people gather to dine at an exclusive, high-priced restaurant on an isolated island, where they eventually find out that the chef has prepared a deadly menu.

Culture Audience: “The Menu” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy, and who are interested in well-acted horror films that are satires of wealthy people and social climbers.

Ralph Fiennes and Hong Chau (center) in “The Menu” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“The Menu” succumbs to horror stereotypes in the last 15 minutes of the film. However, the overall movie is an entertaining ride that pokes fun at pretentiousness and obsessive ambition that are spawned from the pursuit of fame, wealth, and power. The sinister intentions in the story are foreshadowed early on, so the main suspense comes from finding who will survive in this horror film that is both gruesomely grim and wickedly comedic. “The Menu” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival before screening a several other film festivals in 2022, such as Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and the Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland.

Directed by Mark Mylod, “The Menu” was co-written by Will Tracy and Seth Reiss. The movie was inspired by a real-life experience that Tracy had when he want to an exclusive, upscale restaurant on a private island in Norway. In the production notes for “The Menu,” Tracy remembers how he felt: “It was a small island. And I realized, ‘Oh, we’re stuck here for four hours. What if something goes wrong?’”

As shown in the trailers for “The Menu,” it’s a movie where the worst things that can possibly go wrong become a nightmarish reality for the restaurant guests. “The Menu” takes place almost entirely on an unnamed private island somewhere in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. (“The Menu” was actually filmed in Savannah, Georgia.) And it’s an isolated island where the only attraction is an exclusive, invitation-only restaurant called Hawthorn, which is surrounded by a wooded area.

Hawthorn’s chef is a stern taskmaster named Julian Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes), who has become legendary in culinary circles for his highly unusual menu items. Getting an invitation to Hawthorn (which has a sleek, modern decor) is considered one of the highest achievements for people who want to be in the upper echelon of elite foodies. Much of the movie’s satire and horror come from the characters’ desire to have this social status at any cost.

In addition to paying the fee of $1,250 per person, invited guests at Hawthorn have to agree to two main rules: They cannot go to the restaurant solo, and they cannot take photos while they’re at the restaurant. The multi-course dinner at Hawthorn is supposed to take place over four hours and 25 minutes, ending at around 2 a.m.

“The Menu” begins by showing the 11 people who are Hawthorn’s current dinner guests, as they travel on a boat taking them to the island where Hawthorn is located. They are greeted by Hawthorn’s no-nonsense captain Elsa (played by Hong Chau), who acts as a knowledgeable hostess and an unforgiving disciplinarian to the customers. Viewers will later see that all of Hawthorn’s employees act like cult followers of Chef Slowik.

The 11 dinner guests who take this fateful trip are:

  • Tyler Ledford (played by Nicholas Hoult), who is in his early 30s, considers himself to be a foodie extraordinaire. He is a superfan of Check Slowik, and it’s a dream come true for Tyler to be invited to dine at Hawthorn.
  • Margot Mills (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who is in her mid-20s, is Tyler’s date, and she doesn’t really care about the prestigious reputation of Hawthorn. Margot is Tyler’s last-minute companion for this dinner. He was originally going to take a girlfriend, but that relationship recently ended, and he didn’t have time to inform Hawthorn in advance that Margot is his replacement guest.
  • A fast-talking movie star in his 50s (played by John Leguizamo), whose last name is briefly mentioned as being Diaz, but his full name remains a mystery throughout the movie. He is self-centered, demanding and paranoid. His career as an actor has been on the decline, and he’s at Hawthorn as research, because he wants to reinvent himself as the host of a food/travel show.
  • Felicity (played by Aimee Carrero), who is in her 20s, is the movie star’s personal assistant. She reacts to his ego posturing and rude bossiness with a mixture of apathy, pity and disdain. Felicity, whose mother is a movie-studio executive, has the attitude of someone who is close to quitting her job but is staying out of a misguided sense of loyalty to a boss who doesn’t appreciate her.
  • Lillian Bloom (played by Janet McTeer), who is in her early 60s, is a haughty and very pretentious food critic whose ego has been overblown by whatever fame she has. She likes being the center of attention and thinks that her opinion is the only opinion that matters.
  • Ted (played by Paul Adelstein), who is in his early 50s, is Lillian’s “yes man” editor at the magazine where they work. Ted pathetically agrees with almost everything that Lillian says, even if he might secretly disagree with her. Lillian and Ted both like to take credit for helping make Chef Slowik a star, since their magazine gave him positive coverage early in Chef Slowik’s career.
  • Richard (played by Reed Birney), who is his late 60s, is a rich man whose wealth is not really explained in the movie. He conducts himself with an air of someone who is used to getting what he wants.
  • Anne (played by Judith Light), who is in her early 70s, is Richard’s wife who appears accustomed to living in his shadow. Unlike the other guests, Richard and Anne have dined at Hawthorn many times. Anne and Richard are longtime spouses, but their marriage appears to be stagnant and strained.
  • Soren (played by Arturo Castro), Dave (played by Mark St. Cyr) and Bryce (played by Rob Yang), who are in their 30s, are co-workers who have become recent millionaires in the technology industry. Their boss Doug Varick is the chief investor and owner of Hawthorn, so these three “tech bros” go into the restaurant with an extreme sense of entitlement. They also like to show off and brag about their wealth. Soren is the cockiest and loudest of the three pals.

During the check-in process, Elsa is immediately annoyed because Margot’s name is not on the guest list. Tyler nervously explains that the woman he originally invited couldn’t be there, and Margot is his date instead. Elsa reluctantly allows Margot to go to Hawthorn. Later, Chef Slowik also gets irritated that Margot is not someone who was on the expected guest list. Because, yes, “The Menu” is one of those horror movies where people were invited to an isolated area for a specific reason.

As the dinner becomes increasingly ominous, the invited guests eventually find out why they were brought to Hawthorn, as secrets about the guests are revealed in different parts of the movie. Margot’s unexpected presence and her obvious lack of admiration for Hawthorn end up unnerving Chef Slowik so much, he follows Margot into the restroom to demand to know why she doesn’t seem to be impressed with the food and the restaurant.

“The Menu” has a simple concept and very few surprises. However, the movie has a crackling intensity to it, punctuated by moments of dark comedy, because of the snappy dialogue and the cast members’ always-watchable performances. The obnoxiously pompous conversations between Lillian and Ted are some of the comedic highlights of the movie.

Chau’s portrayal of dour Elsa also has its funny moments because of her cynical insults and the ways she passively-aggressively gets revenge on customers she thinks are getting out of line. The “tech bros” repeatedly request bread for their table, but they are refused and complain about it to Elsa. Bryce impatiently asks her: “Don’t you know who we are?” Elsa then says quietly in Soren’s ear: “You’ll eat less than you desire and more than you deserve.”

The menu items look decorative when served as they’re masterpieces, but they are often examples of theater of the absurd, such as a second-course serving that consists of a “breadless bread plate.” Chef Slowik haughtily explains, “Bread is for the common man. You are not the common man.” The dinner guests look like they don’t want to think that some of what they’re being serves is a joke—and the joke’s on them.

Tyler and Margot, who barely know each other, end up clashing on many different levels, because they view the Hawthorn experience so differently. Margot is quick to call out any rudeness and disrespect she sees at Hawthorn, but Tyler is quick to ignore any bad conduct because he doesn’t want to get banned from Hawthorn. Hoult and Taylor-Joy have some memorable scenes together, but Taylor-Joy has the more substantial role in the movie. It should come as no surprise that there’s more to Margot than what she first appears to be.

As for chief villain Chef Slowik, he reveals things about his past that partially explain his obsessive need for control, perfection and being considered one of the best restaurant chefs ever. The movie has some predictable scenes of Chef Slowik humiliating some members of his staff, including sous chefs named Jeremy Loudon (played by Adam Aalderks) and Katherine Keller (played by Christina Brucato). Chef Slowik’s mother Linda (played by Rebecca Koon) is seated by herself in the restaurant’s dining area, but she spends most of the movie in a drunken stupor.

Chef Slowik doesn’t own Hawthorn, so there’s an underlying insecurity to his madness that’s impossible to ignore. Fiennes brings both cold calculation and unbridled rage to his role as this evil chef with murderous intentions. Chef Slowik is both transparent and mysterious, consistent yet unpredictable. This dichotomous nature makes him a fascinating character to watch.

“The Menu” also hilariously lampoons the way that people mindlessly buy into whatever overpriced ridiculousness they think will give them higher social status than others. For example, at one point during the dinner, Chef Slowik orders the guests: “Do not eat. Taste, relish, savor. Do not eat. Our menu is too precious for that.”

Imagine being served a meal at a restaurant, but then being told not to eat that meal because it’s “too precious” to eat. Some of the guests, especially Tyler, are so enthralled with whatever Chef Slowik has to say, they could have an empty plate put in front of them at Hawthorn and be convinced that the plate’s “aura” is the greatest thing they ever experienced at a restaurant. Tyler gushes about Chef Slowik to Margot: “He’s not a chef. He’s a storyteller.”

Of course, things eventually get very ugly and un-glamorous at Hawthorn. “The Menu” falls apart a little bit when it turns into a standard schlockfest, with the expected attempts to escape from the island, and some bloody fights for survival. Some of the characters are very underdeveloped, such as the “tech bros” and Chef Slowik’s mother. Even though the concept of people trapped in an isolated area is an over-used basis for a horror movie, “The Menu” serves up enough of freshness and originality to make it a thrilling and terrifying story.

Searchlight Pictures will release “The Menu” in U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022.

Review: ‘Mack & Rita,’ starring Diane Keaton, Taylour Paige and Elizabeth Lail

August 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Diane Keaton in “Mack & Rita” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Premiere)

“Mack & Rita”

Directed by Katie Aselton

Culture Representation: Taking place in the California cities of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the comedy film “Mack & Rita” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 30-year-old woman, who feels older than most of her peers, wishes that she were just like her beloved and now-deceased grandmother, and she’s shocked when her wish comes true, and she physically becomes a woman in her 70s. 

Culture Audience: “Mack & Rita” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Diane Keaton and don’t mind seeing terrible movies that insult viewers’ intelligence and make the cast members look like idiots.

Taylour Paige in “Mack & Rita” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Premiere)

Diane Keaton, please do not allow anyone to talk you into doing embarrassing garbage movies like “Mack & Rita” ever again. If anyone has the misfortune of watching this pathetic excuse for a comedy film, be warned that it is less likely to make you laugh and more likely to make you sad and maybe a little angry that this is the type of moronic junk that Oscar-winning acting legend Keaton has been reduced to doing. And to make matters worse, Keaton is one of the producers of “Mack & Rita,” so she sunk her some of her own money into helping make this atrocious flop.

“Mack & Rita” is supposed to be a female empowerment film. It’s supposed to be a comedy film that’s funny. But just because a woman (Katie Aselton) directed “Mack & Rita,” and just because a woman (Madeline Walter) co-wrote the screenplay doesn’t automatically make this train wreck any good. (Walter wrote the “Mack & Rita” screenplay with Paul Welsh.) In fact, “Mack & Rita” is such an abomination that makes women in the movie look so flaky and ditsy, it’s the opposite of a female empowerment film.

“Mack & Rita” is the third feature film directed by Aselton, who is probably best known to movie audiences as an actress in movies and TV. Her credits as an actress include supporting roles in movies such as 2019’s “Bombshell” and 2018’s “Book Club.” She previously directed and starred in the 2013 horror flick “Black Rock,” an independent film (written by her husband, Mark Duplass) that got mixed reviews. Aselton’s feature-film directorial debut was 2010’s “The Freebie,” a mediocre and lightweight comedy that she wrote. Aselton and Dax Shepard co-starred in “The Freebie” as a married couple allowing each other one night of infidelity. In other words, Aselton has been on plenty of film sets to know better than to dump the trashy “Mack & Rita” into the world.

Comedies about body switches or body transformations need to have cast members with authentic-looking chemistry, in order to make the movies work well. On top of that, even if the story involves sci-fi or fantasy, at least some part of it has to be believable, starting with the way that the characters react to this body change. Unfortunately, “Mack & Rita” fails in every bare minimum of these requirements.

“Mack and Rita” also does a lot of unappealing perpetuating of negative stereotypes of women over the age of 70, by making it look like women in this age group have sex appeal that shrivels up like wrinkled skin. Except for the character played by Keaton, all of the senior citizen women who are supporting characters in “Mack & Rita” just sit around, guzzle wine, and gossip about other people’s love lives, but they don’t have love lives of their own. And when the character played by Keaton does have some romance, it’s played for cringeworthy laughs because (gasp!) she kisses a man who’s young enough to be her son.

“Mack & Rita” has an odd mix of talented cast members and not-so-talented cast members that make their scenes together very hard to watch. The opening scene of the movie shows a quick montage flashback of lead character Mackenzie “Mack” Martin as a 9-year-old (played by Molly Duplass, daughter of Aselton and Mark Duplass) being raised by her sassy grandmother, who’s only given the name Grammie Martin (played by Catherine Carlen) in the movie. It’s explained later that Mack’s parents are deceased. Mack was very close to Grammie Martin, who died sometime when Mack became an adult. Mack admired her grandmother’s confidence and still wishes that she could be more like her.

Mack has now grown up to be a 30-year-old bachelorette writer (played by Elizabeth Lail) living in a Los Angeles apartment building with her dog Cheese. Her only book so far (a collection of personal essays about her grandmother) was a modest hit, but Mack hasn’t had much luck getting a publishing deal for her second book. In the meantime, Mack’s abrasive and snobby agent Stephanie (played by Patti Harrison) has been pushing Mack to become a social media influencer who gets paid for endorsing products and services. Stephanie sneers to Mack in a phone conversation: “Remember, if you’re not getting paid for something, it’s a hobby. And hobbies are disgusting.”

The adult Mack explains in a voiceover: “I grew up always feeling like I was an older woman trapped in the body of a little girl. I think that’s why I was so found of the term ‘old gal.” I was raised by my grandma, who was the coolest ‘old gal’ I ever knew. She would say, ‘Well, that’s because I’m old. I’ve got less time to live, so I’ve got less flips to give.” Get used to the cringeworthy talk in “Mack & Rita,” because this horrible movie is full of it.

Mack continues in her voiceover: “All I wanted was to be like Grammie Martin, but like any kid, I had to fit in. Over the years, I had to hide what I thought was cool. And you know what? It worked pretty well … I did my darndest to keep my inner old gal to myself.”

The movie then rushes through an explanation that Mack will soon be going to Palm Springs for the weekend to attend the bachelorette party of her best friend Carla (played by Taylour Paige), in a house lent to them by a friend of Carla’s mother Sharon (played by Loretta Devine). Before she leaves for her trip, Mack meets with her bachelor next-door neighbor Jack (played by Dustin Milligan), a private wealth manager who’s also 30 years old. Jack has agreed to be the dogsitter for Cheese while Mack is away for the weekend in Palm Springs. (As soon as you see Jack on screen, it’s obvious he will be Mack’s love interest.)

Mack and Jack exchange some awkward small talk because they’re both attracted to each other but don’t want to come right out and say it. He asks her if she would like to go skateboarding with him sometime. Mack politely declines. “Mack & Rita” tells no details about Mack’s previous dating experiences, but the movie repeatedly implies that because Mack wants to be just like her grandmother, she thinks that means she has to live life like the worst stereotype of a boring old lady.

One of the most annoying things about “Mack & Rita” is that it makes people who are supposed to be in their 30s act like they have the emotional maturity of teenagers who are still in high school. There’s Jack and his semi-obsession with skateboarding and expecting women who date him to be interested in skateboarding too. And later, when Mack meets up with Carla and their two airhead bachelorette friends Sunita (played by Aimee Carrero) and Molly (played by Lauren Beveridge), this arrested development in emotional maturity is also on full display.

Mack tells Carla, Sunita and Molly about turning down Jack’s invitation for a skateboarding date. Mack says that this rejection is because she’s afraid that Jack could be a Lothario. It’s an example of Mack being paranoid about dating, because Jack has not shown any indication that he’s a jerk or a creep.

Sunita and Molly then repeatedly ask Mack what a Lothario is. Mack has trouble explaining it to them until she uses the word “player.” Apparently, the “Mack & Rita” filmmakers want people to equate “vocabulary intelligence” with “mentality of a boring old lady,” and that the average 30-year-old woman can’t possibly know what the word Lothario means.

Sunita and Molly are self-absorbed, yammering characters whose personalities are indistinguishable from one another. Molly and Sunita only seem to care about what they see and post about themselves on social media. Carla is portrayed as a loyal and accepting friend who tries to give Mack more confidence and a lot of understanding.

However, Carla’s patience is tested when the “body transformation” happens to Mack, who ends up becoming a popular social media influencer in her new “old woman” body, and Mack becomes an unreliable friend. This information was already revealed in the “Mack & Rita” trailer. You know a movie is bottom-of-the-barrel rubbish when there’s nothing salvagable that can be edited to make the movie’s trailer look interesting.

While the four gal pals are hanging out at a restaurant for lunch, Mack sees two elderly woman dining together at a nearby outdoor cafe. Mack says that she envies how life seems to be so simple for these senior citizens because these old women know who they are and what they want. Mind you, Mack knows nothing about these women or what their conversation is about, so she really has no idea if these women are as happy or as confident as she assumes they are. Mack has a weird fixation on thinking that women of retirement age are supposed to be happier than any other women just because elderly women have lived that long and are old enough to retire. It’s a very misguided and ignorant over-simplication of women.

Mack tells Carla when Mack points out the two elderly women having lunch together: “I want to be like them: just sitting around and falling asleep until someone shakes me awake.” What a condescending and ageist perception of elderly women. “Mack & Rita” repeatedly pounds this negative stereotype that women over the age of 70 are supposed to be boring, and then uses this unflattering perception as a flimsy plot device that’s not only stupid but it’s also offensive. The entire terrible premise of “Mack & Rita” is that any woman over the age of 70 who is not boring is the exception and probably does things that deserve to have people laughing at her because she’s supposed to be “too old” to do those things.

Mack’s body transformation happens as body transformations do in dimwitted and lazy movies: by a force of nature that is never explained in the movie. Mack sees a pop-up tent near the restaurant. The tent is advertising New Age type of services with the slogan “Regress and be blessed” written on a makeshift sign.

Out of curiosity, Mack goes in the tent and finds a spaced-out wannabe guru named Luka (played by Simon Rex, in an awful, hammy performance), who tells her to lie down in a run-down-looking tanning bed and think of any wish that she wants to come true. Mack wishes exactly what you think she wishes: “I want to be Grammie Martin!” Mack also shouts, “I’m a 70-year-old woman trapped in a body of a 30-year-old who just needs a minute to rest!”

Wind gusts suddenly appear in the tanning bed like a mini-tornado. And when Mack emerges from the tanning bed, she’s horrified to see that she now looks like an elderly version of herself (played by Keaton), so the expected hysterical skrieking ensues. Luka suddenly is nowhere to be found to change Mack back into her “normal” self. Luka’s disappearance is just the movie’s way of stretching out the excruciatingly bad scenarios that Mack experiences as the elderly version of herself.

While still adjusting to the shock of her body transformation, Mack shows up at the borrowed house in Palm Springs, where Carla predictably thinks Mack is an intruder. But once Mack proves to Carla that she really is Mack—just trapped in a 70-year-old body—Carla easily accepts everything like it’s not that big of a deal. “Mack & Rita” is so poorly written, the bachelorette party is never shown, and Carla is never seen having a conversation with her groom-to-be (whose name is never mentioned in the movie), even though there’s a plot development involving the wedding rehearsal dinner. The groom is never seen talking and has a brief “blink and you’ll miss it” appearance where he’s seen with Carla in a car.

Expect to see a silly montage of Carla and “elderly” Mack doing various things to try to make Mack look younger, such as going to a rigorous fitness trainer (just an excuse to put Keaton and her stunt double in awkward physical positions) or beauty salons, as if putting on some skin cream will somehow make Mack look younger. And there are the usual pratfalls and “I’m too old for this” clumsiness from “elderly” Mack, because the movie wants to make it hilarious to laugh at elderly people who might have physical limitations. It’s all so witless and tiresome.

In one of the movie’s worst scenes, “elderly” Mack takes Carla’s advice to drink psychedelic mushrooms with some tea. It leads to a very unfunny scenario of Mack hallucinating, with very cheap-looking visual effects used in the movie. Mack’s hallucinations include thinking that her dog is talking to her. Martin Short is the voice of the dog in this scene. It’s a good thing that Short isn’t on camera, thereby sparing him the humiliation of being seen in this horrendous dreck.

And who exactly is the “Rita” in “Mack & Rita”? When “elderly” Mack goes back to her apartment, she lies to Jack and says that she is Mack’s aunt Rita. The lie is that Rita (who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona) and Mack decided to do an apartment exchange while Mack is in Scottsdale for a writer’s retreat. Jack is a little taken by surprise by Rita, but because he doesn’t know Mack and her family very well, he easily believes this lie.

It’s the same lie that’s told to Carla’s outspoken and meddling mother Sharon and Sharon’s three nosy best friends: cranky Betty (played by Lois Smith), jolly Carol (played by Amy Hill) and sarcastic Angela (played by Wendie Malick), who are all the wine-guzzling, gossipy old lady stereotypes that make “Mack & Rita” such a trite and insulting portrayal of older women. Betty is the one who owns the house in Palm Springs. Sharon is an openly queer woman who divorced her husband (Carla’s father), and then married a woman, who is now deceased. The only reason this information about Sharon’s love life is in the movie is to make Sharon a negative stereotype of an elderly woman who’s bitter about not currently having a love partner.

The younger female characters in the movie aren’t much better when it comes to shallow clichés, except for Carla, who is the only one who comes across as having a believable personality and a life that doesn’t revolve around envying other people or gossiping about them. (Paige, who’s stuck in the thankless role as Carla, sometimes looks like she knows she’s in a bad movie, but perhaps she needed the money.) Mack as a 30-year-old is just insufferably ignorant, and it doesn’t help that Lail gives the worst performance in the cast. Luckily, the 30-year-old Mack doesn’t have much screen time, compared to 70-year-old Mack/Rita whose depiction is appalling enough.

Far from making the “elderly” Mack/Rita look stylish, the substandard costume design for the “elderly” Mack/Rita consists of mostly ill-fitting (usually too large) embarrassments. Who in their right mind thinks anyone looks good in an oversized plaid blazer paired with an oversized polka dot A-line skirt? But there “elderly” Mack/Rita is, wearing one of these many clownish-looking outfits in “Mack & Rita.”

Everything about “Mack & Rita” looks like an outdated sitcom that was rejected decades ago. It’s also a fake feminist film. If Mack gets a “happy ending” (her romance with Jack; finding Luka to turn her back to her “normal” self), it’s all dependent on getting a man to like her. Mack shows no real independence or personal growth. The romance in this movie is as dull as dull can be.

“Mack & Rita” is just a series of abysmal slapstick scenes and forced, terrible scenarios where people are supposed to laugh at the sight of a woman in her 70s doing things that younger people usually do—and she gets mocked for it in one way or another. Making an entire movie about putting an elderly woman in humiliating situations is not amusing. It’s misogynistic. Movie audiences and someone with Keaton’s caliber of talent deserve so much better.

Gravitas Premiere released “Mack & Rita” in U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Wander Darkly,’ starring Sienna Miller and Diego Luna

December 11, 2020

by Carla Hay

Diego Luna and Sienna Miller in “Wander Darkly” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Wander Darkly”

Directed by Tara Miele 

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area and Mexico, the drama “Wander Darkly” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and working class.

Culture Clash: A man and a woman who have a newborn baby are involved in a car accident that alters the way that they look at their lives.

Culture Audience: “Wander Darkly” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in mind-bending “flashback” movies that put a lot of emphasis on “what if” aspects of life and the ongoing debate over personal choice versus destiny.

Sienna Miller and Diego Luna in “Wander Darkly” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Wander Darkly” puts a very clever and absorbing spin on a concept that has often been used in movies: Someone gets injured in an accident and tries to right some wrongs, or “do over” their life. Written and directed by Tara Miele, “Wander Darkly” isn’t a horror movie, but it’s a psychological drama that goes deep and keeps viewers guessing over who died and who survived a terrible car accident that is the catalyst for almost everything that happens.

The Los Angeles couple at the center of the story are Adrienne (played by Sienna Miller) and Matteo (played by Diego Luna), who have recently become parents to a baby daughter named Ellie. Adrienne and Matteo are both in their late 30s or early 40s. And they both give the impression that they feel like life is passing them by too quickly and they don’t have much to show for it except for their child.

Matteo is as an independent contractor who does construction jobs and also works as a handyman. Adrienne is a visual artist who does art installations, but now that she’s become a mother, taking care of the baby is taking up a lot of her time too. Matteo and Adrienne live in a co-op building, where most of the residents are younger than they are.

And, as Adrienne says at one point in the movie, the couple is “broke.” They’re not so financially desperate that they’re on the verge of being homeless. But money is tight, and their household income is barely enough to pay their expenses.

There are other signs that Adrienne and Matteo’s relationship is fraying, or at least hit a rough patch. While driving to a friend’s house party for a “date night” (Matteo does the driving), tensions are running high because Adrienne had to remind Matteo that this was their date night. She’s irritated that he had forgotten, and she reminds him it was his idea to have date nights because their date nights “are cheaper than therapy.” And there are a lot of issues in this relationship that looks like it could need therapy.

Adrienne is also annoyed with Matteo because she thinks he’s being too laid-back about their financial situation. A lot of the passion has gone from their relationship, which has always been plagued by jealousy, mostly coming from Adrienne. She thinks Matteo has cheated on her with a younger, attractive female friend of Matteo’s named Shea (played by Aimee Carrero), but Matteo insists that he and Shea (who is very affectionate with Matteo) have a strictly platonic relationship.

There’s also a lot of underlying tension over Adrienne and Matteo’s marital status. When people assume that Adrienne and Mateo are married, Adrienne quickly corrects them and tells that she and Matteo are not husband and wife. Meanwhile, Matteo doesn’t seem to mind if people assume that he and Adrienne are married. In the beginning of the movie, it’s somewhat unclear if Adrienne really wants to get married or not. But it’s later revealed in the story what the couple’s true feelings are about being married to each other.

When Adrienne and Matteo get to the party, more issues come out under their forced smiles and somewhat sarcastic comments. At the party, Matteo mentions to two friends who are couple—Gary (played by Lamont Thompson) and Kevin (played by Ethan Cohn)—that he and Adrienne’s domineering mother Patty (played by Beth Grant) don’t really like each other. Matteo says about his relationship with Patty: “When she comes to the house, we play this game like we can’t see or hear each other.”

And it’s also implied several times throughout the story that Patty is a religious conservative, while Adrienne and Matteo are not. There are also veiled inferences to Patty being a racist who doesn’t approve of her daughter dating a Latino man who’s originally from Mexico. No one ever really comes right out and says that there’s this racial and cultural tension in the family, but it’s clear that there is, based on the strained way that Patty and Matteo interact with each other. Adrienne’s father Steve (played by Brett Rice) meekly goes along with whatever Patty wants.

Adrienne isn’t the only one who has jealousy issues. There’s a good-looking man at the party named Liam (played by Tory Kittles), who seems thrilled to see Adrienne there. The feeling is very mutual and they greet each other with warm smiles and hugs. Matteo has noticed that Liam is at the party too, and Matteo doesn’t seem happy about it at all.

Unlike Matteo’s relationship with Shea, there’s no ambiguity over Adrienne’s relationship with Liam, based on Matteo’s reaction. Although it’s not said out loud, Liam and Adrienne were once romantically involved with each other, but are now just friends. It’s never made clear how long Liam and Adrienne were together, but Matteo feels uncomfortable with Liam and Adrienne still having contact with each other.

And that jealousy comes out during an argument that Matteo and Adrienne have in the car on the way home. Matteo brings up the subject of Liam at the party and Matteo’s perception that Adrienne was being too affectionate with Liam. Adrienne tells Matteo that they’re allowed to have friends. And she also says, in an exasperated voice, “Why are we even together anymore?”

And then, the car accident happens when an out-of-control car blindsides Matteo and Adrienne from the front of their car. Adrienne wakes up injured in a hospital. And it’s here where the movie takes many twists and turns that can’t be described in this review without giving away too much information.

However, it’s enough to say that viewers will be wondering who survived the car crash: Was it Adrienne, Matteo, both or neither? There are several scenes where Adrienne and Matteo reflect on their lives and the choices they made. And there’s a time-warp aspect to the story, since Ellie is seen as a 4-year-old (played by Olivia Popp) and as a 15-year-old (played by Inde Navarrette), with the teenage Ellie reading some of her mother’s journals.

Although Matteo is one-half of this couple, this story really belongs to Adrienne, who goes through the more harrowing emotional journey in the movie. “Wander Darkly” uses a lot of fade-out camera and editing techniques to take people back and forth into scenes that could be flashbacks or could be a chance for Adrienne and Matteo to “do over” something in their past.

Luna and Miller are both very good in their roles as this couple wondering where things went wrong in their relationship and trying to recapture some of the magic they had in the beginning of their romance. Miller is fascinating to watch in this psychological mystery, because she goes through every conceivable emotion in this movie without ever veering into campy territory or giving away too much in advance of where this story is headed.

There are times where viewers will think that Adrienne and Matteo might be dead and in purgatory. And there are times when people will think Adrienne and Matteo are alive but just might be delusional. In one memorable scene, Adrienne is depressed after the accident, and she’s moping on the couch while watching TV. George Romero’s 1968 classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead” is playing on the TV screen.

Matteo goes in the room and expresses surprise that Adrienne is watching this horror movie because he says that she hates zombies. But Adrienne replies, “They’re my people now. I feel connected to them, actually. They’re very misunderstood.” Later, Adrienne says, “I feel soulless, hollowed-out.”

Thanks to notable performances from the cast members and impressive writing and directing from Miele, “Wander Darkly” is anything but soulless and hollow. People who have short attention spans probably won’t enjoy this movie as much as people who like to try to solve mysteries while watching a complicated relationship. However tragic the car accident was (both Adrienne and Matteo suffered serious injuries from the car crash), “Wander Darkly” offers an impactful message of resilience in the wake of tragedy.

Lionsgate released “Wander Darkly” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020. The movie’s released date on Blu-ray and DVD is February 9, 2021.

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