Written by: Jack Olsen
Directed by: Jon Cassar
Starring: Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, and Jaz Sinclair
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I’m the brains in this. You’re just the uterus."
Before we get started here, can we just take a minute to acknowledge that killer title logo? Just anyone try and stop me from seeing a movie whose marketing goes the extra mile to transform a letter into a bloody knife blade. Especially when said movie hails from the duo of Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, the now long deposed New Line head honchos who programmed decades of disreputable junk. Representing their second effort at Unique Features, When the Bough Breaks specifically (and unabashedly) harkens back to the erotic thrillers that once clogged late-night cable lineups (and the titillated minds of horny teenage boys) in the 90s. It’s trashy, tawdry nonsense cut from the same cloth as the likes of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and its ilk, the cinematic equivalent of a lightweight grocery store paperback with few aspirations beyond providing cheap thrills.
Understand that this is not a criticism, especially when this kind of junk gets really wild, which, I’m sorry to say, this particular effort doesn’t. You feel like it could, but it’s almost remarkably muted: yes, somehow a film with that logo takes itself a touch too seriously.
Then again, I suppose it is pretty serious business: affluent New Orleans couple John and Laura Taylor (Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall) have been trying in vain to have a child for several years, having endure multiple miscarriages and a lengthy search for a surrogate. Now down to their last viable embryo, the Taylors meet Anna (Jaz Sinclair), an eager young woman who wants to selflessly help the couple fulfill their dreams of becoming parents. Never mind that she almost seems to be too eager, her wily eyes almost always hinting at the devious scheme you know she’s about to pull on her completely oblivious targets.
The only question is the exact nature of her plot. Her boyfriend (Theo Rossi, one of the few actors that seems to get how silly this all is) seems doting enough but turns out to be a huge, abusive scumbag, a revelation that drives Anna into the Taylor’s posh mansion, putting her in a prime position to seduce John. But is her affection genuine or part of a more elaborate plot hatched between her and the boyfriend? It’s the only genuine intrigue propelling the early-going here, at least until the question is answered with an emphatic display of violence that feels like it should finally push the film into overdrive.
Instead, I spent most of the time wondering just when in the hell that would actually happen. For the most part, When the Bough Breaks is content to just lumber along, dutifully walking through its expected motions: Anna starts to make doe-eyes at John before her overtures become more overtly disconcerting. She swipes Laura’s stunning dress for herself, and, before you know it, she’s sending risqué stripping videos to John at work. His resistance only makes her more persistent, leading to the obvious speculation: when is Laura going to discover all of this so the shit can finally hit the fan?
When the Bough Breaks is in no particular hurry to answer that question. In a welcome, clever reversal of expectations, it depicts Laura as the workaholic spending time away from the house in pursuit of a promotion, leaving John in the house alone with the minx that wants to jump his bones. But there’s very little tension here: to his credit, John does not give into temptation, thus stripping the film of that kind of lurid, will-he-or-won’t-he trainwreck intrigue it could thrive upon in the absence of just about anything else of note. Hell, the entire subplot involving Anna’s boyfriend only serves to deliver a gratuitous, graphic outburst to convince the audience that, yes, shit might get real.
Otherwise, it’s a rather stuffy ordeal that leaves you waiting for everyone to clue into Anna’s true motives. In the process, you do at least start to feel sorry for John, a beleaguered dude stuck between a rock and a hard place. Fellow employees at his law firm look on suspiciously when Anna seems to be a little too close to him, though he (perhaps understandably) can’t reveal the truth out of fear that it might drive this batshit surrogate away with his unborn child in tow. It’s not the worst bit of dramatic irony, and Chestnut is adequately desperate but befuddled—certainly, John knows something has to give, yet he’s at a loss as to how it’s going to happen.
Anna, on the other hand, has no compunctions about flaunting this would-be affair. Like Rossi, newcomer Sinclair gets it in a way the other performers don’t: if nothing else, she knows how ludicrous this shit should be, so her performance is always trying to push the film in that direction. At a point, it’s more like she’s dragging the dead weight of a limp script and pedestrian direction with a wickedly delightful turn. Despite a traumatic backstory that might have humanized her in a better film, Anna becomes a one-note villain, though Sinclair really hammers that note, nailing it with every sly glance and insouciant sexual overture. Sinclair plays her as a vixen putting on an obvious Lolita act, actively inviting the audience to revel in her inevitable ruin.
She deserves a movie that could keep up with her and deliver a worthwhile comeuppance. I can’t stress enough just how disappointing this script is: with so many pieces at its disposal (including Michael K. Williams as a dirt-digging investigator!), it could deliver so much more than the awkward, half-hearted double climax it offers. Sidelined throughout is Hall, who is eventually reduced to orchestrating a bizarre plot before providing what passes as the film’s exclamation point; in truth, it’s more like an ellipsis since When the Bough Breaks decides to just limp to the finish line, its final credits unexpectedly rolling during what you expect to be some kind of denouement. Director Jon Cassar—who could really use some of that twisting, turning 24 verve here—seemingly can’t wait to shuttle you shrugging back into the lobby. When the Bough is Gently Nudged might be a more accurate title.
Cassar's unwillingness to truly unhinge When the Bough Breaks snuffs out most of the fun. For a film that shamelessly leans on disreputable violence—including domestic and sexual abuse—it’s a pretty tame affair, especially during the blink-and-you-miss it climax. This would be forgivable if the film could even feign giving a damn about these characters and mining the situation for actual drama instead of soap opera drama; instead, it spends much of its runtime as a junk thriller in denial of its pulpy impulses. Occasional moments—I mean, just look at the dialogue quoted above—hint at what could have been, as do the ridiculous, ominous musical cues that threaten to turn the proceedings into a cartoon, but they’re too insubstantial.
Whatever nastiness this film could have is snuffed out by a glossy studio finish that puts a polish on a bland mediocrity that’s further handcuffed by a PG-13 rating. In the glory days of Cinemax, this one likely could have played before dark, which is just about the damning criticism I can imagine.
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