Near the end of Pixar’s masterpiece, Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego gives a moving, elegant monologue on the nature of criticism. While the whole piece is brilliant, I want to focus on just one sentence of the speech. “But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
While some may disagree, here’s my take on what Ego is getting at. Even when a review of anything leans more towards the negative side of things, that does not mean the product in question is without any artistic merit. Such is the case with the mystery thriller Underwood, from writer-director John McLoughlin.
Successful author Samantha Rollins (Michelle McCurry) stays at a book signing longer than advertised to ensure she can meet all her fans. This means that she does get away to a little cabin in the woods, nestled just outside of a quaint small town until later than expected. She’s taken this sojourn to find artistic inspiration for her next book. While exploring the place, Sam finds an ancient typewriter. She takes quite the fancy to the machine and decides to test it out. After going to sleep that night, Samantha has the most vivid dream. In it, she hears a love letter being read and sees two people longingly gaze at each other.
The next day, Sam explores the town and meets her consistently grumpy neighbor Gladys (Fran Rimondi) and the kindly shop owner Al (William Grefé). That night, when Sam goes to sleep that night, she dreams of the two people from the night before. Sarah (Jillian Gizzi) and Jeffrey (Chris Walker) plan on getting married, though his brother Alan (Dennis Friebe) is also in love with Sarah. Tragedy strikes and Sarah winds up dead. Sam wakes up and finds that all the pages detailing what she’s been dreaming about have been written on the typewriter. How is that happening? Did these events actually unfold? Or are they the product of an overstimulated imagination?
“Sarah and Jeffrey plan on getting married, though his brother is also in love with Sarah. Tragedy strikes and Sarah winds up dead.”
All in all, Underwood has a lot going for it. The premise is genuinely intriguing and well thought out. Sam’s initial disbelief over the dream and the pages magically being written is believable and works. The supernatural angle is not overplayed, which plays nicely into the whole reality versus fiction angle. Plus, the way the love triangle from the dreams is doled out in increments really sustains the viewer’s interest.
McLoughlin’s characterizations are also quite strong, for the most part. Samantha is struggling with writer’s block but keeps an optimistic attitude about everything. It is a nice change of pace from where a lot of portrayals of writer’s block go. Her banter with the locals is quite playful and fun;, especially with the caring Al. The dream players and their motivations are equally as compelling. The sheriff comes to be a major player and reveals shades of nuance. Al is also sharply written, and his caring for his new friend is genuine.
On the flipside of that, there are a few too many characters. After her book signing, Sam is chatting with an employee (owner?) of the bookstore. Later on, while settling in at the cabin, she calls a friend. This person is not the bookstore lady, whom it is hinted at that Sam is friends with outside of work. Then there’s Sam’s significant other who plans to join her at the cabin after a few days. Also, let’s not forget to mention Sam’s agent. While the majority of folks add to the story, most discussed here could be cut without changing anything.
“…sports an engaging premise, smart characters, and an ending that I loved.”
However, too many characters are not what brings the whole production down. No, what kills Underwood is the acting. Every single actor is shockingly inept and amateurish. I want to stress the “every single actor” part, as every cast member dons the same blank expressions and unconvincing, wooden delivery for the entirety of the movie. This issue has nothing to do with budget limitations. In my review for Krampus Origins, I make special note of how fantastic its entire cast is, especially for a child actor heavy low budget genre flick.
Even putting that film aside, by sheer happenstance, at least one actor in Underwood should be able to come across as competent. Here’s the thing, these people are capable of better. Friebe, who does have a tiny amount of screentime, owns in the parable horror film A Brilliant Monster. William Grefé has been in the movie business for a long time as an actor, writer, and director. He too has been better in several films. Considering that everyone is giving the same style of performance, more or less, it must mean that McLoughlin told them to act in that manner. The problem is that the flat way of speaking drowns out all emotion. This makes it difficult to connect with any of the characters beyond a surface level.
Underwood sports an engaging premise, smart characters, and an ending that I loved. Sadly, all that good is undone by a fatal flaw- the acting is atrocious across the board. Does that make the mystery thriller a lousy movie? Well, I can’t really recommend it, but it indeed contains artistic merit.
Underwood (2019) Directed by John McLoughlin. Written by John McLoughlin. Starring Michelle McCurry, Fran Rimondi, William Grefé, Jillian Gizzi, Chris Walker, Dennis Friebe.
4 out of 10 Typewriters