Any marriage is going to have its ups and downs. But what if those "downs" start happening the minute you step off the altar? Such is the premise of Just Married as blue-collar radio traffic announcer Tom Leezak (Ashton Kutcher) meets rich free-spirited writer Sarah McNerney (Brittany Murphy) and after a whirlwind romance they decide to get hitched. Oh if it could be that easy. Their course to true love has several strikes against it and the rest of the movie is spent figuring out if they are going to make it or not. Strike No. 1: Sarah's well-to-do parents (whose nicknames for each other range from "Pee-Wee" to "Pussy") are completely appalled she's marrying "beneath her." Strike No. 2: Sarah's sophisticated rich ex-boyfriend Peter (Christian Kane) the one Daddy McNerney (David Rasche) favors wants Sarah back. Strike No. 3: after they get hitched anyway the two young marrieds' honeymoon in Italy quickly turns horrific. In fact it's so unbelievably awful--from their small yellow box posing as a rental car being pushed off a mountain cliff to the cockroaches crawling over them as they try to make love in a run-down Venice shack to said ex-boyfriend showing up to thwart all that is good--your only hope is that they don't kill each other before they can get the sucker annulled. Of course we don't really believe they'll break up do we? We know better. With any good old-fashioned romantic comedy the power of love wins out. Blech.
It's not easy being relatively new faces in the film business and having a major feature film rest on your shoulders. Yet Kutcher and Murphy do their best with a formulaic script and some painful-looking physical comedy added in for good measure. It's evident the two click (so much so they became a real-life couple) so it's nice to wholeheartedly believe they are mad for one another. Their youthful appeal is about the only thing that saves the film from total drudge to be honest. Individually Kutcher gets to venture off from the one-note innocuously stupid guy he's played in movies such as Dude Where's My Car? and Fox's That '70s Show just a little to show some heartfelt moments especially when telling his new bride how much he loves her. To his credit he doesn't fail miserably at it. On the other hand Murphy who has the acting chops having handled meaty roles in dramas (Girl Interrupted) as well as comedies (Clueless) has nothing whatsoever to go on as Sarah. Clearly she must've been listening when her agent said "Do this movie! It'll be great for your career!" The rest of the cast blends in with Rasche being the only standout as Sarah's no-nonsense all-business millionaire dad.
You might feel sorry for this movie being released the second week of January just after an enormous onslaught of Oscar-touted films if it wasn't for the fact that 20th Century Fox obviously timed it to capitalize on the youth audience in a field of so-called "boring old people movies." Just Married is just the ticket for young people. Kutcher has developed a following after the surprising hit movie Dude Where's My Car? and Murphy just made a splash with Eminem in 8 Mile. The film has the age group 16-24 written all over it. But come on folks even good intentions to capture a certain market can't make up for a downright silly movie. Director Shawn Levy whose credits include 'tween flick Big Fat Liar and Disney Channel's The Famous Jett Jackson handles Just Married pretty much like his previous--broad and wacky with very little substance. The best part of the movie is the very beginning when the two newlyweds walk off the plane fuming and one-upping each other. Ah married life. The irony is duly noted but then the film goes straight into a flashback sequence lapsing periodically between pratfalls saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and gushy professions of love. Chalk it up to bad judgment.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.