Jordan Sanders, the police chief at the center of John Slattery’s new movie, isn’t your typical big-screen cop. He is played by Slattery’s Crazy men compatriot Jon Hamm with a little scruff of the neck, a little belly and a touch of melancholy. But it’s his sincerity that really sets him apart. In the parking lot of a motel where a murdered woman has been found – the second under his watch in a week – Jordan ponders the possible ways she got there and looks at the gunshot wound to the back of her head. “My God,” he says, overwhelmed by the horror of it all. “That’s horrible.”
As in God’s pocket, his first feature as a director, Slattery is here interested in a certain cross between the working class and the criminal fringe, focusing on the dumb lowlife school of thievery. And again he sends a game cast between dueling notes of darkness and wit, not always hitting the target. But with Maggie Moore(s) – which ends up in theaters and will be on demand days after the Tribeca premiere – he moves out of the gritty urban shadows into an edge-of-the-world atmosphere steeped in desert strangeness, and in this uneven genre gambit the overall mood is lighter, despite the story’s small-scale but brutal killing spree.
It comes down to
More of a genre clash than a seamless mix.
Screenplay by Paul Bernbaum (Hollywood land) was apparently inspired by real life events – “Some of this actually happened,” a title card announces at the beginning, creating a certain WTF attitude towards all the ha-ha murders that unfold. On the other story track, Hamm’s endearing sincerity as a widower trying to work out his feelings in a writing class, and working out two murders through a winning comedic give-and-take with his crime-solving partner (an excellent Nick Mohammed, of Ted Lasso), makes you wish the story’s dire actions were less frantic.
Dummkopf supreme Jay Moore (a devoted Micah Stock), the financially strapped sandwich shop owner who inadvertently instigates the string of murders, hires a sadistic deaf thug named Kosco (Happy Anderson, particularly scary). Jay’s intent is to intimidate his wife, Maggie (Louisa Krause), and convince her not to go to the police, as she promised to do after finding an envelope of child pornography. But things don’t go as planned, and Kosco takes things to the next level, leaving behind a corpse instead of a chastised Maggie. Learning that there is a second Maggie Moore in town, Jay devises a plan to divert the investigative spotlight from him to Andy (Christopher Denham), the husband of the other Maggie.
How Jay secured that envelope of porn without knowing its contents is ultra-ultra-ultra-obscure, but somehow it’s his part of a deal with Tommy T (Derek Basco), the dummkopf who cheapened him, sells tainted food so he can keep his Castle Subs franchise running; Jay can’t afford the parent company’s more expensive amenities. By the time these two argue over the word “edible,” it’s hard to give a damn. And by the time the other Maggie Moore (Mary Holland) has died her horrible death in a motel parking lot, the murder mystery, with all its many moving parts, feels almost to the point.
Jay’s nosy neighbor, Rita (Tina Fey), soon reveals all to Jordan – not just about Jay and Maggie’s big blowout, but also her romantic history. There’s something sweet and surprising, both mature and needy, about the way Rita casually lays her cards out on the table during her first meeting with Jordan. “He pretty much broke me up,” she says of her ex, adding that “it takes courage to be happy.”
This also comes across as pretty basic adult self-help. (It should be noted that Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment is one of the film’s producers, which could also account for the gambling addiction helpline information at the end of the film.) Fey gives Rita’s honesty some weight, but the role could have been more edged and more involved in the hands of a more daring actor; Fey’s performance feels, distractingly, like a quieter spin on a familiar persona.
A great actor himself, Slattery has populated this busy story with characters bordering on caricatures, with levels of nuance varying widely. In addition to Anderson’s murderous madman, a few supporting figures are vividly drawn, even if their fates feel tangential at best: Nicholas Azarian as high school student Greg, Jay’s harassed but observant employee; Bobbi Kitten as a pink-haired hooker who goes public with what she knows and knows how to get what she wants; and a particularly excellent Oona Roche as the convenience store cashier who, in all innocence, sparks Jay’s kill-for-a-kill scheme (and who, fortunately, is a niece of the immortal singer’s members – songwriter trio The Roches).
As a director, Slattery has an eye for the sunlit Southwestern setting, and DP Mott Hupfel makes evocative use of the New Mexico locations, both the formidable wild spaces and the suburban flatness. (The film is set in fictional Buckland County, apparently in Arizona.) Ben Sollee’s score gives a casual Western tone, while Jeff Schoen and Laura Bauer’s design contributions never overshadow the characters and reflect who they are, whether or not the setting is a retro farmhouse is house or a soulless McMansion.
But those characters’ storylines are pulled together in a way that feels more mechanical than seductive. It’s Hamm’s emotionally wounded top small-town cop that provides the engine of the movie, especially in his dealings with Mohammed and Fey’s characters. The plans and cover-ups and collateral damage revolve around with little dimension, or, as Police Chief Sanders summarizes it, “Just a bunch of people who deserve each other.”
Release date: Friday, June 16
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Distributor: Screen Media Films
Production companies: Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, Redbox Entertainment, Contentious Media, Convergent Media, Aperture Media Partners, WME Independent, VN Entertainment, Shoestring Pictures, Indy Entertainment
Cast: Jon Hamm, Tiny Fey, Micah Stock, Nick Mohammed, Happy Anderson, Mary Holland, Nicholas Azarian, Louisa Krause, Derek Basco, Christopher Denham, Allison Dunbar, Tate Ellington, Oona Roche, Bobbi Kitten, Bryant Carroll, Christopher Kriesa
Directed by: John Slattery
Screenwriter: Paul Bernbaum
Producers: John Slattery, Vincent Garcia Newman, Dan Reardon, Santosh Govindaraju, Nancy Leopardi, Ross Kohn
Executive Producers: Jim Valdez, Kyle Hayes, Daniel Grodnik, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Jonathan Taylor, Martin Finnegan, Simon Fawcett, Jared Underwood, Andrew Robinson, Slava Vladimirov, Chris Armstrong, Srinivas Sanka, Sairoopa Tirukonda, David A. Stern, Clay Floren, Paul Bernbaum, Seth Needle, Conor McAdam, David Fannon, David Nagelberg
Director of photography: Mott Hupfel
Production Designer: Jeff Schoen
Costume Designer: Laura Bauer
Editor: Tom McArdle
Music: Ben Sollee
Casting: Susan Winkelmaker
1 hour 39 minutes