For a Reunited John Slattery and Jon Hamm, Less Is Maggie Moore(s)

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For a Reunited John Slattery and Jon Hamm, Less Is Maggie Moore(s)

Sarah Koenig revved up the true crime industrial complex in 2014 after spinning Serial off from This American Life; endless ranks of wannabe investigative journalists have kept the machine trundling along with navel-gazing podcasts ever since. Don’t count Paul Bernbaum and John Slattery among the copycats. Their new film Maggie Moore(s) is truth-adjacent at best and closer to speculation, inspired by the unsolved murders of two Texan women, both named Mary Morris, in 2000. Bernbaum writes; Slattery directs. Judging by the work, neither seems driven by justice for the Morrises, but by a kind of American transposition – the idea that what happened to them could happen anywhere.

Maggie Moore(s) is set in Buckland County, a fictional Arizona burg, but was shot in New Mexico. What matters is that the story unfolds somewhere in the Southwestern U.S., where daunting (but beautiful) landscapes abut depressing suburban sprawl peppered with dilapidated fast food joints and gas stations, cheap motels, monotonous residential cul-de-sacs, and casinos. Bernbaum borrows a few pages from the Coen brothers’ playbook for the plot, tangling together a fistful of disparate characters who normally wouldn’t cross paths, then complicating the tangles with rank displays of man’s foolishness and capacity for violence. The film is dark, as films about double homicide tend to be.

The first Maggie Moore is played by Louisa Krause, the second by Mary Holland; Maggie 1 is unhappily married to Jay (Micah Stock), a schmuck whose ineptitude outmatches his ambition to own the half of the world that Howard Schultz hasn’t bought yet. (Jay’s words, more or less.) Jay is a sub shop franchisee in league with Tommy T (Derek Basco), a loser and an idiot like Jay with the added perk of being into kiddie porn; Tommy supplies Jay with expired off-brand food products so Jay can skim from his bosses, and Jay delivers the gross stuff to Tommy (seemingly unaware of what his unmarked envelopes contain). When Maggie 1 opens the envelope, she leaves Jay, who by Tommy’s urging hires Kosco (Happy Anderson), a hulking deaf ginger, to intimidate her out of calling the police. Kosco intimidates her a little too hard. Then he disposes of the evidence a little too hard. There are accelerants involved.

Enter Slattery’s best buddy, former Mad Men star and forever monument to masculine perfection Jon Hamm, playing Buckland County police chief Jordan Sanders with hangdog discontent; he’s a widower, and he’s looking for something, anything, to snap him out of his mourning. Maggie 1’s murder isn’t it. Neither is Maggie 2’s, which Jay orders via Kosco as an attempt to muddy the waters when Jordan tries to solve the death of Maggie 1. Maggie Moore(s) rotates between Jay and Jordan as one tries to divert attention from his guilt and the other tries to find a way to move on with his life; Slattery rarely puts the audience in the perspective of the film’s many supporting characters, whether it’s Reddy (Nick Mohammed), Jordan’s quippy deputy; Rita (Tina Fey), Jordan’s potential love interest and Jay’s nosy neighbor; Sammi (Oona Roche), a constitutionally bored but chatty convenience store clerk; Andy (Christopher Denham), Maggie 2’s husband; or Kosco, frankly the best-realized character in the movie outside of Jordan himself and a villain in the Anton Chigurh vein.

Maggie Moore(s) primarily cares about Jordan as its chief representative of American existential wanderlust, something the film invests in most of its characters. Jay might be a dolt, but even dolts can dream; Rita has wants that her job can’t fulfill, and that her lack of self-esteem precludes her from pursuing. Kosco clangs against that ubiquitous dissatisfaction. He’s just a guided missile; people pay him money and tell him who to obliterate, and he does. The Maggies both have aspirations of their own, too, though the movie addresses them only cursorily, because even though they’re the victims, it isn’t about them (as is the case with most crime movies). It’s about the atmospheric stultification that people living in America’s southwestern reaches struggle against.

Whether Slattery and Bernbaum are actually concerned with these ideas is a lingering question, because their foremost interest is in character. The best pleasure Maggie Moore(s) has is its star, whose association with Don Draper still belies his casual ease with playing regular folks, dealing with regular folks’ woes. The rest of ensemble doesn’t slouch, though, with each member bringing to their roles an authentic, shrugging acceptance of their lot in life. Fey hasn’t been this relaxed on screen in years, and her chemistry with Hamm translates nicely from the madcap sensibilities of 30 Rock to Slattery’s human storytelling. The exception to this sensibility is Stock, who makes Jay tremble with an electric anxiety in each scene. He’s the worst sort of nervous wreck, the sort willing to stoop low to cover his ass, then lower still when the first cover goes awry. With his relentless flop sweat, Stock’s performance sums up the folly Maggie Moore(s) warns viewers about.

Mercifully, the movie avoids outright commentary about true crime. There is no meta element at play here, just the indulgence of the great American cinematic pastime of bad people doing bad things and meeting bad ends, while good admirably stumbles about looking for answers and meaning in the face of all that badness. Slattery and Bernbaum’s adherence to genre standards may hold Maggie Moore(s) back from doing anything new in its space, but not from doing anything worthwhile. There’s nothing wrong with a messy low-level crime movie done right.

Director: John Slattery
Writer: Paul Bernbaum
Starring: Jon Hamm, Tina Fey, Micah Stock, Nick Mohammed, Happy Anderson, Derek Basco, Mary Holland, Louisa Krause, Bobbi Kitten, Tate Ellington
Release Date: July 16, 2023

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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