Hard-boiled meets undercooked to indigestible results in the heavy-handed “Wetlands.” This soggy stab at neo-noir finds Italian-born writer-director Emanuele Della Valle out of her element in a pretentious meller set on the Jersey shore. The various conflicts she’s concocted are neither psychologically convincing nor sufficiently ironical in genre terms to avoid a pervasive sense of cultural disconnect.
An indie piece of festival fodder that’s strangely devoid of much exposure at festivals — presumably it got turned down by the premiere outlets — this grab-bag of phony angst is being opened by Abramorama on U.S. screens Sept. 15. It won’t linger there long, but a speedy transition to home formats is unlikely to find it much more welcome there.
Perpetually grim Babel “Babs” Johnson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) — first glimpsed in a flash-forward of high histrionic distress — is an odd fit in his new post as ranger in parklands outside Atlantic City. But then, this isn’t exactly a career move. He’s landed here in the wake of a drug-related police scandal in Philly, one that he’s responsible for to the extent that he remains stuck in a 12-step program. His black skin is thinly tolerated in this lily-white enclave. But he’s here to reconnect with Amy (Celeste O’Connor), his pre-adolescent daughter by jaded, bitter ex, Savannah (Heather Graham).
Savannah’s current flame, meanwhile, is a much-younger board designer dubbed Surfer Girl (Reyna de Courcy). While dreaming of a professional escape to Hawaii, she gets by dealing drugs for the scummy Jimmy (Louis Mustillo). When their arrangement goes sour, Jimmy threatens Amy in retaliation, attracting Babs’ hostile attention. Attracting him in a different way is arch local TV news anchor Kate (Jennifer Ehle), who’s married to his boorish partner Paddy (Christopher McDonald). Inevitably, somebody gets murdered, and our hero must solve that crime while clearing himself. Meanwhile, there’s a major hurricane approaching.
Apparently moviemaking keeps getting easier while writing keeps getting harder — “Wetlands” being yet another example of a film whose surface technical polish can only do so much to gloss over the coarse, clumsy screenplay that flummoxes its cast.
These actors are working hard. In fleeting moments, they achieve some psychological reality. But they’re defeated by terrible dialogue and inorganic storytelling. Aiming at times for a paler shade of “Blue Velvet,” this is more like “Blue Velcro,” with each thematic element artificially pasted onto the next. There’s no suspense here. The film does improve somewhat, albeit not in the sense of “getting better” but rather “not getting worse.” (At least Amy’s insufferably “poetical” voiceover narration disappears for a long spell.) On the other hand, having key flashbacks feature lines like, “That vagina must taste like champagne” prevents any significant degree of recovery.
Torpid even at its most ludicrous, “Wetlands” isn’t bad in a fun way. It has aspirations — which act like weed killer on any pleasure its more lurid aspects might generate. You can’t really fault the actors, let alone DP Barry Markowitz or the other competent behind-the-camera personnel. They do their best. But some jobs are thankless.