“Some of this actually happened…”
This is the message that greets audiences after a rather tense opening in actor John Slattery’s (Mad Men/Iron Man 2) second feature film, the darkly comic mystery Maggie Moore(s). No matter how weird or wild the tales projected on the silver screen get, there’s almost always some aspect of real life that goes off the rails to the point where a storyteller would call it out, proclaiming that whatever’s happening is just too unbelievable. A pandemic, social unrest, the threat of civil war, the threat of world war, a recession, and more all at once? Who are the writer’s for the 2020-2023 season and when can we expect a rewrite? No, sorry, no rewrites (not just because the Writer’s Guild is on strike) because this is actually happening. However, from the mess of humanity can come an intriguing idea that’s far-fetched enough to provide a hook and is not so outside the extreme as to destroy the illusion of possibility. This is exactly where Maggie Moore(s) resides, straddling a line between rom-com and murder mystery that will find audiences pulled in by the charms of the cast, unaware they’re on the edge of their seat with suspense.
While inspecting a murder scene, Chief Jordan Sanders (Jon Hamm) and Deputy Reddy (Nick Mohammed) are shocked to discover that this victim, Maggie Moore (Mary Holland), shares the same name as a different murder victim from earlier in the week. Surely the two crimes are related due to the similarity in name, but why and what’s the connection? But there’s no overlap, no commonalities, and no leads. Either this is all in their imagination or something brilliant (or brilliantly stupid) is going on in their town.
The film, like the victims, is a duality. On one side is a story about a widower (Sanders) coming to terms with life as it exists now (the rom-com portion), while the other side is a dark comedy of errors involving an idiot with big dreams and the carnage that follows. Though searches for what incident inspired Paul Bernbaum’s (Next/Hollywoodland) script came up empty, Slattery nevertheless displays a great deal of empathy for the victims in the film, giving the audience only what they need to understand the stakes and gravity of the narrative without necessarily making a spectacle. This might seem strange in the true crime era we’re in now, but Maggie doesn’t require that the audience sees anything more than the victim post-murder in order to get invested in the success or failure of the murderers. In fact, by using a time jump back after the moment Sanders and Reddy learn the name of the new victim, Slattery opts not to present a revisited moment precisely as depicted the first time, using a blinking fade-in/fade-out as though what we’re watching is happening in between heartbeats, in between moments in time, that we’re helpless to watch or create impact in the outcome. At no point does Slattery present or display the murders in a way that sensationalizes the act or denigrates the victims. With so much of the action in the narrative being a reaction or response *to* the violence, one might expect to actual see the carnage. However, by shifting away from that expectation, there becomes a growing sensation of unpredictability, thereby creating excitement in the possibilities, as well as the hope of appropriate comeuppance.
The rom-com aspect is, strangely, where Maggie flourishes the most, adding heart and charm to an otherwise macabre tale. It’s not that we, the audience, require investment in the protagonists beyond watching (in this case) a police officer work to solve a crime, but by (a) placing gifted character actor Jon Hamm in the lead role and (b) placing the emphasis on the way in which his gut guides him, a grounding within the wildly odd story that takes place. As a performer, Hamm has a way of anchoring a story (Confess, Fletch) or upending it (Baby Driver), instilling either hilarity and confidence or unbridled disquiet through tone and physicality. A character like Sanders, who the film takes time to explore outside of his work, requires someone that the audience will believe is unsteady privately and unwavering professionally, which Hamm brings to the roll quite easily. For those familiar with the meek character Mohammed plays on Ted Lasso, Reddy may surprise as this fish-out-of-water character is far more encouraging and funny, his worst character trait being an inability to read a room with his humor. Maggie needs its laughs, though, and they can’t all come from the blundering criminal who sets everything in motion or the killer said idiot hires. Mohammed’s Reddy not only adds levity, but the script doesn’t stoop to racially-charged or denigrating material to create the laughs, allowing for Reddy to maintain our respect even if he loses some of Sander’s. But the romance isn’t between these two, it’s between Saunders and neighbor to one of the victims, Rita Grace, played with a softness and charisma by frequent Hamm collaborator Tina Fey (30 Rock/Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). The two have fantastic on-screen chemistry in practically everything they do together; two performers in absolute sync with each other, and these roles allow them to play off each other in very different ways than we’ve seen thus far. Perhaps the best element of the film is the way in which the script uses moments from this rom-com portion, perfectly natural exchanges between strangers-turned-friends-turned-something-more, and utilize them to answer questions within the mystery portion. The crossover of aspects not only does the expected job of increasing dramatic tension, but affords the rom-com some thrill and the murder mystery some unexpected lightness.
For his sophomore outing, Slattery is demonstrating dependability as a director and doing so with a mixed genre that is often difficult to nail. In a nice tight 96-minute runtime, Slattery takes us on a rollercoaster ride that possesses all the hallmarks of a dime-store crime novel: unrepentant criminals, idiots who think they’re destined for greatness, and good guys just trying to figure out their place in the world before it all comes crashing down around them. Even better, as unbelievable the situation, the narrative and direction make everything that happen from go entirely plausible, making the rom-com sweeter and the murder mystery more devilish.
Screened during Tribeca Film Festival 2023.
In theaters and on VOD June 16th, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.