‘The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write About a Serial Killer’ Review

The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write About a Serial Killer” marks the English-language debut of Turkish director Tolga Karaçelik. Its initial premise, about an unhappily married couple, morphs and flips on its head until it transforms into something resembling the movie’s title, though it’s only about “a writer writing about a serial killer” in the most nominal sense. That one element gives way to an even more amusing conceit, involving crossed-wires and mistaken identities, but its wires continue to cross, until the movie mutates beyond recognition, refusing to stick to any one idea for longer than a couple of scenes.

John Magaro plays Keane, a meek but self-absorbed novelist who refuses to admit (or even recognize) that his marriage is on the rocks. His wife Suzie (Britt Lower) initially comes off as heartless and cold in her admonishment of him and in her demands for a divorce. However, through the steady unfurling of dramatic layers, she proves to be one of the movie’s secret weapons. The other heavy-hitter in its arsenal is Steve Buscemi’s Kollmick, a retired serial killer who enjoys Keane’s work and is brusque to the point of absurdity.  

As Keane searches for a way out of a four-year writer’s block, Kollmick approaches him with an idea, suggesting that Keane’s next book ought to be about the lives of serial killers, and that Kollmick will serve as his mentor, teaching him the ropes of stalking, kidnapping and so forth. As Keane drunkenly considers his offer, he brings Kollmick home one night, only for Suzie to discover him, at which point Keane improvises an excuse: that his new killer best friend is actually an offbeat marriage counselor, a ruse to which Kollmick reluctantly agrees.

These dueling settings — of Kollmick playing unwitting therapist by day and sneaking around with Keane by night — are rife with comedic possibility, but “The Shallow Writer” soon settles into a shallow rhythm, where nearly all its punchlines and visual jokes are born from repetitive misunderstandings, rather than emanating from its lively characters. As the movie discards its fake therapist plot with disappointing quickness, it begins to play like a first draft filled with inside jokes, to which the audience is seldom privy. Apart from Kollmick’s occasional idiosyncratic quips, it’s seldom laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s hardly interesting or amusing either, thanks in large part to the sheer lack of energy on screen.

The film’s music, by Nathan Klein, is mischievous and rooted in character specifics — its primal, visceral sounds tie into Keane’s in-progress Neanderthal romance novel, down to the writer mentioning a rudimentary flute — but the score never evolves to accommodate the movie’s shifting premise or subject matter. Each of its cast members brings a unique and specific flair that’s immediately undone by the film’s trajectory.

Magaro’s fearful insecurity as Keane is undercut by the eagerness with which he goes along with Kollmick’s ploys, leaving tremendous comedic potential on the table. Buscemi’s commitment to a comically methodical killer is similarly undone by how swiftly each situation goes awry, forcing Keane and Kollmick to approach each scene with an identically clumsy vibe (the comedy of contrast never seems to arise, despite being baked into the key dynamic). Meanwhile, Lowe’s sternness is diluted by what feels like a subplot that belongs to a much more fearful and less self-assured character who suspects her husband is up to no good. All these contradictions are in service of specific physicals gags and situations that play as though they were written before the characters were ever conceived, or were penned for an entirely different set of characters altogether.

It’s a comedy that feels written in reverse. Worse yet, it’s directed without any of the visual flair that a series of such zany premises might deserve. The result is a lethargically drawn-out movie with no verve or allure and none of comic spark of a film like Richard Linklater’s recent “Hit-Man,” which plays similarly with shifting identities and cascading scenarios.

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