Producers: John Slattery, Vincent Garcia Newman, Dan Reardon, Santosh Govindaraju, Nancy Leopardi and Ross Kohn Director: John Slattery Screenplay: Paul Bernbaum Cast: Jon Hamm, Tiny Fey, Micah Stock, Nick Mohammed, Happy Anderson, Mary Holland, Nicholas Azarian, Louisa Krause, Derek Basco, Christopher Denham, Allison Dunbar, Tate Ellington, Oona Roche, Bobbi Kitten, Bryant Carroll and Christopher Kriesa Distributor: Screen Media Films
This second feature directed (sluggishly) by actor John Slattery attempts to channel the spirit of “Fargo” and transplant it from the wintry climes of Minnesota to the parched aridity of New Mexico (nicely conveyed in Jeff Schoen’s Albuquerque-based production design), but the quirky combination of black comedy and mayhem managed so brilliantly by the Coen brothers proves difficult to duplicate, especially when you try to add a cute rom-com element to the mix. Even a game cast headed by Jon Hamm and Tina Fey—and an abundance of corpses—can’t bring “Maggie Moore(s)” to life.
Paul Bernbaum’s script isn’t a whodunit, since we know early on who’s responsible for the deaths of the two women named Maggie Moore—Jay Moore (Micah Stock), a woebegone convenience store owner who’s trying to keep the place afloat by acquiring expired goods from a sleazy deliveryman (Derek Basco) in return for helping the guy distribute child pornography. When Jay’s wife Maggie (Louisa Krause) discovers what he’s up to, she tosses him out, and to keep her from informing on him, Jay hires a thug named Kosco (Happy Anderson), who’s deaf, to frighten her into keeping mum. But Kosco goes too far and she winds up permanently silenced, i.e., gruesomely murdered.
Jay’s terrified that the investigation by Sheriff Jordan Sanders (Hamm) and his quippy deputy Reddy (Nick Mohammed) will single him out as the chief suspect, since their next-door neighbor Rita Grace (Fey) had heard him and his wife fighting and knew they had just separated. When he accidentally learns from a convenience store cashier (Oona Roche) that there’s a second woman named Maggie Moore (Mary Holland) in town, he has a brainstorm to deflect suspicion: he engages Kosco to kill her too, hoping the sheriff will conclude that she was always the intended target and his wife had been killed by mistake. Then the scrutiny will shift to the second Maggie’s husband Andy (Christopher Denham), especially when it comes out that he has a mistress (Bobbi Kitten), a loquacious stripper who quickly moves in with him.
The plot is thickened by other characters, like Greg (Nicholas Azarian), Jay’s clerk, who turns out not to be quite as hapless as he seems; Duane Rich (Tate Ellington), an ex-colleague of the second Maggie who was fired after harassing her and becomes both a suspect in her death and a victim himself; and representatives of the company that oversees Jay’s franchised operation and threatens him with closure for selling spoiled merchandise acquired from unsanctioned sources.
But their contributions pale beside the romance that gradually develops between Jordan and Rita; he’s been unlucky in love, and she tends to undervalue herself (even maintaining a supportive attitude toward her overbearing ex), but gradually their interest in one another deepens, with Reddy’s jocular encouragement of his boss helping to overcome the sheriff’s initial hesitation. There’s a low-key sweetness to their relationship, though the decision to put it at the center of a hectic, tonally uncertain and clumsily choreographed finale is a miscalculation. It’s here that the cinematography (Matt Hupfel) and editing (Tom McArdle) are at their weakest, though they’re at best adequate elsewhere (the cleverly staged killing of the second Maggie being their strongest moment). Ben Sollee’s score is also rather bland.
Still, Hamm and Fey make a likable pair, although their laid-back performances don’t exactly throb with charisma; Stock’s nervous energy certainly provides a contrast, but he’s unable to match the hysterical desperation that William H. Macy brought to the equivalent role in “Fargo.” Of the rest Anderson makes a genuinely scary villain and Mohammed’s quizzical attitude is amusing, while Azarian and Roche add amusing cameos.
But while one can admire Slattery’s intent to create something unusual, he doesn’t pull off the juggling act that would have melded the wildly different elements of “Maggie Moore(s)” into a satisfying whole.