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Jordan Sanders, the police chief at the center of John Slattery’s new film, is not your typical big-screen cop. He is played by Slattery’s Mad Men compatriot Jon Hamm with a little scruff, a little belly and a touch of melancholy. But it’s his seriousness that really sets him apart. In the parking lot of a motel where a murdered woman has been found—the second under her watch in a week—Jordan considers the possible ways she got there and considers the gunshot wound to the back of her head . “My God,” he says, seeming overcome with the horror of it all. “It’s terrible.”
As in God’s pocket, his first feature film as a director, Slattery is interested here in a certain intersection between the working class and the criminal fringe, the emphasis on the stupid school of theft. And once again he’s leading a game cast between dueling tones of darkness and humor, and not always hitting the mark. But with Maggie Moore(s) – which hits theaters and will be viewable on demand days after its Tribeca premiere – it shifts from gritty urban shadows to an edge-of-the-world atmosphere infused with desert weirdness, and in this uneven genre move the overall mood is lighter, despite the story’s small-scale but brutal killing spree.
More a collision of genres than a seamless blend.
Release date: Friday June 16th
Place: Tribeca Film Festival (fiction spotlight)
Launch: Jon Hamm, Tiny Fey, Micah Stock, Nick Mohammed, Happy Anderson
Director: John Slattery
Screenwriter: Paul Bernbaum
1 hour and 39 minutes
Screenplay by Paul Bernbaum (Hollywood) was apparently inspired by real-life events — “Some of these really happened,” announces a title card at the beginning, creating a certain WTF attitude to all the ha-ha murders that take place. On the other narrative track, Hamm’s endearing sincerity as a widower trying to process his feelings in a writing class, and solving two murders through a playful banter with his crime-solving partner (an excellent Nick Mohammed , Of Ted Lasso), makes you wish the story’s bad deeds were less frenetic.
Accidentally instigating the string of murders is supremely dimwitted Jay Moore (a busy Micah Stock), the financially strapped owner of a sandwich shop, who hires a sadistic deaf thug named Kosco (singularly scary Happy Anderson). 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 full of child pornography. But things don’t go as planned and Kosco takes things to the next level, leaving a dead body instead of a chastised Maggie. Learning that there is a second Maggie Moore in town, Jay hatches a plan designed to shift the investigative spotlight away from him and onto Andy (Christopher Denham), the husband of the other Maggie.
How Jay secured that bag of porn without knowing its contents is ultra-ultra-ultra unclear, but somehow it’s part of a deal with Tommy T (Derek Basco), the goofball who sells him food at cheap and rotten so it can keep its Castle Subs franchise running; Jay can’t afford the parent company’s more expensive provisions. When these two argue over the word “edible,” it’s hard to care. And when the other Maggie Moore (Mary Holland) dies her own terrible death in a motel parking lot, the murder mystery, with all its many moving parts, seems almost out of place.
Jay’s nosy next-door neighbor Rita (Tina Fey) is soon revealing all to Jordan, not only about Jay and Maggie’s big blowout, but her own romantic history as well. There’s something sweet and surprising, both adult and needy, about the way Rita casually lays her cards on the table during her first meeting with Jordan. “She destroyed me pretty good,” she says of her ex, adding that “it takes courage to be happy.”
This too comes across as a pretty basic self-help for adults. (It should be noted that Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment is one of the producers of the film, which may also explain the gambling addiction helpline information at the end of the film.) Fey gives Rita’s honesty some weight, but the role could have had more edge and been more engaging in the hands of a bolder actor; Fey’s performance feels, distractingly, like a quieter spin on a familiar character.
Slattery, himself an outstanding actor, has populated this eventful story with characters bordering on the caricature, whose levels of nuance vary widely. In addition to Anderson’s murderous lunatic, a few supporting figures are vividly drawn, even if their fates seem tangential at best: Nicholas Azarian as high schooler Greg, Jay’s harassing but observant employee; Bobbi Kitten as a pink-haired whore who goes public with what she knows and that she knows how to get what she wants; and a particularly excellent Oona Roche as the convenience store cashier who, in all innocence, provides the spark for Jay’s murder-to-hide-a-murder scheme (and who, happy side note, is a niece of members of the immortal singer-songwriter trio The Roches).
As a director, Slattery has an eye for the sunny Southwest setting, and cinematographer Mott Hupfel makes evocative use of New Mexico locations, both formidable wilderness and suburban flatness. (The film is set in fictional Buckland County, apparently Arizona.) Ben Sollee’s score lends an unforced western feel, while design contributions from Jeff Schoen and Laura Bauer never overshadow the characters, reflecting who they are whether the setting is a retro ranch house or a soulless McMansion.
But the story threads of those characters are strung together in a way that feels more rote than enticing. It’s Hamm’s best emotionally wounded small-town cop who drives the film, especially in his dealings with Mohammed and Fey’s characters. The schemes, cover-ups and collateral damage revolve around small-time or, as Police Chief Sanders sums it up, “Just a bunch of people who deserve each other.”