The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write about a Serial Killer Is a Mouthful of a Title with Nowhere to Go

Movies Reviews Steve Buscemi
The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write about a Serial Killer Is a Mouthful of a Title with Nowhere to Go

In person, Steve Buscemi can look dapper, even downright handsome, and if he hasn’t exactly leaned into this quality in the later years of his distinguished and varied career, he’s certainly less apt to play outright creeps and weirdos than he once was. So there’s a certain comfort in seeing him slick back his hair and slip on some owlish glasses to play Kollmick, a “retired” serial killer and somewhat inexplicable fan of Keane (John Magaro), an unsuccessful writer – especially when it becomes clear that Buscemi is playing Kollmick as an awkward, eccentric crank with a specific way of doing things, rather than a scary, leering creep. (He’s less pleasant than the serial killer he played in Con Air, but maybe slightly friendlier than Seymour from Ghost World.) Everything seems to be in place for Buscemi’s richest comic role in ages.

Unfortunately, this perfectly designed Buscemi character is stuck in a movie called – deep sigh – The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write About a Serial Killer. This movie knows what you’re thinking, or rather, knows what it wants you to be thinking: What the-?! A movie that calls itself shallow? Right in the title? And leaves in the clumsy wordiness of the phrase “a writer who decided to write”? What a marvelously offbeat undertaking this must be! What will they think of next – a movie that attempts to portray crime and violence in a humorous manner? (If they do, I think I have just the title!)

Look, there’s no reason The Shallow Tale should have to screech to a halt with self-satisfaction, even with a terrible title. Titles can change; titles can be ignored. Writer/director Tolga Karaçelik has a great hook: Keane, the writer, is slowly working through a novel whose premise excites him and no one else, and when he meets Kollmick, a fan with personal experience in a more commercial genre, the odd stranger enthusiastically suggests that Keane make his next book a serial-killer story instead – with Kollmick’s input. Forced to admit that this could get him out of his creative rut and actually sell books, Keane agrees, and the two strike up an uncomfortable friendship. There are any number of possibilities for this relationship between two people in widely loathed solitary professions.

Instead of picking a comic idea and developing it, however, Karaçelik tries to outdo himself before he’s done anything, insisting on arch elaborations that attempt to build on dark Coens-style crime comedies the way Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead attempted to build on Tarantino in the ’90s, only without the timeliness of a mercenary rip-off. (Sometimes bad rip-offs of older material are scarier, because they indicate that the filmmakers are doing it out of a genuine belief that they know how.) See, Keane’s wife Suzie (Britt Lower from Severance) wants a divorce because his insecurities and self-involved creative process fill her with a deadened rage, manifested in her haircut (dramatic bangs), a series of stylized outfits and a hushed deadpan delivery that belongs in an entirely different universe. To save his failing marriage and cover up his new friend’s identity, Keane inexplicably has Kollmick pose as a couples’ counselor, leading to scenes where Kollmick improvises his way through therapy sessions. If what you want out of your dark crime comedy is watching someone nonsensically struggle to fill a surfeit of dead air, The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write about a Serial Killer has you more than covered.

Undaunted, the movie refuses to let its lack of knowledge about marriage outshine its lack of knowledge about serial killers. Keane’s conversations with Kollmick have no urgency, no lurid pull, and eventually they listlessly settle upon an arrangement where Kollmick will show Keane how he captures a victim, using Keane’s literary agent who is – you’ll never believe it – venal and insincere. It’s as if Karaçelik only belatedly realized that serial killing involves murdering multiple people, and decided to focus on the finer points of kidnapping instead, to make his by-now enormously unappealing story more palatable. So Keane accompanies a serial killer on a long night’s journey through their unnamed city’s seedy underworld, so he can learn about… kidnapping.

How the rote process of watching someone buying a gun and zipties is supposed to become a novel, no one really seems to know or care. The movie aims for comic absurdity, but even stories this outlandish tend to be funnier if they start from a place of logic that spirals out of control, rather than immediately flailing. The flailing comes naturally because Karaçelik makes a fatal mistake common to those who fancy themselves satirists without a clear idea of what they’re satirizing: He treats his lead character with abject, undisguised, unfunny loathing. His idea for Keane is: What if there was an unsuccessful writer who was extremely annoying and everyone hated? Finally, a movie with the guts to portray writers as neurotic, meek and dull!

Magaro obliges this characterization so easily that it’s easy to forget his finely tuned performances in movies like First Cow and Past Lives. (The whiny pitch of his work here made me literally forget it was the same guy; probably a blessing.) Buscemi, meanwhile, is never given a character to match his memorable look. It’s a shame, because the idea of a serial killer approaching his work with a kind of dutiful, world-weary professionalism is funny enough – maybe only comedy-sketch funny, but then again, The Shallow Tale produces a profound longing for the number of laughs that could sustain a five-minute sketch. The movie may seek derisive laughs from Keane’s pathetic pretensions, but I’m not convinced Karaçelik has a better idea up his sleeve to justify the smugness.

Director: Tolga Karaçelik
Writer: Tolga Karaçelik
Starring: John Magaro, Steve Buscemi, Britt Lower
Release Date: June 8, 2024 (Tribeca)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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