WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS Review

It is evident from the word go that When the Bough Breaks is campy trash, but the most critical question campy trash always has to answer is whether or not it's fun campy trash. Director Jon Cassar has worked on many a television series which makes sense because When the Bough Breaks is very much along the lines of what the Lifetime network routinely produces. Everything feels rather staged and mostly inauthentic save for a single character who seems to be the only one in this universe within which such movies as this take place who understands real struggle while everyone else walks around-money being no object-without a care in the world. One might think, given these circumstances, that When the Bough Breaks might be a bit of a relief to the onslaught of tentpoles and big-budget/high concept offerings the summer movie season has just delivered in that it is (technically) an original story that remains just familiar enough to attract the necessary audience to justify its existence-not to mention it's a movie mostly made to cater to adults. And yet, this familiar story of seduction offers nothing new by way of cheap thrills or even openly ridiculous tension. Rather, Cassar's film takes itself so seriously and genuinely yearns to be a somber drama that it turns into a plodding and rather boring affair instead of pure trashy fun. That the film doesn't bother to have any fun with its otherwise farcical tone is a shame as trying as hard as the film does to come up with credibility when all they have is camp only makes the final product that much worse. To those points, When the Bough Breaks is a movie that will take more heat for what it stands for and represents rather than the actual content in produces. This meaning that the pieces are in place-Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall are seasoned veterans of this type of melodrama (unfortunately) and audiences can go through the motions of the film knowing the story beats that will clearly be hit and yet despite all of this being somewhat blatant rip-offs of other movies we've seen over the years both Chestnut and Hall as well as newcomer Jaz Sinclair are each more than capable of pulling anxiety and tension out of the situations their characters find themselves in. Still, When the Bough Breaks is overall a lazy if not competent thriller that could have just as effectively been directed by a board room as it has been a man for hire like Cassar.

John Taylor (Morris Chestnut) becomes the subject of seduction for Anna (Jaz Sinclair) in When the Bough Breaks
There are many theories for where the nursery rhyme "Rock-a-bye Baby," originated including that of an English immigrant who observed the way native-American women rocked their babies in birch-bark cradles, which were suspended from the branches of trees as well as those that believe the song relates to a character in the late 18th century who lived with her charcoal-burner husband and their eight children in a huge yew tree in Shining Cliff Woods where a hollowed-out bough served as a cradle. Though it really doesn't matter where the lullaby came from the point is that it was always one of those songs sung to children that seemed to be largely laced with darker themes and ideas than we might want to exploit to such innocent minds. This goes along nicely with a story that concerns John and Laura Taylor (Chestnut and Hall) who are a well-off, extremely professional couple who desperately want a baby and have seemingly exhausted all of their options. Upon viewer introductions to the lead couple we become privy to the fact John is a hotshot lawyer and Laura is a sought-after chef who live in New Orleans (one of the only interesting touches in the movie) who have been looking for the right surrogate to carry their final embryo and last chance at realizing their dreams of starting a family. Given both have solid careers and are more than respected in their community they are the first couple to be called when the perfectly innocent seeming Anna (Sinclair) walks into the clinic with the claim she genuinely wants to do something good for others-that she wants to be able to give others something in a way she feels she's never been able to before. This is all well and good and naturally Laura falls for her instantly believing they've found the perfect woman to be their surrogate. John is more hesitant given Anna's boyfriend, Mike (Theo Rossi), gives him pause and yet he can't deny his wife's excitement or her dream to be a mother any longer and so Anna is entrusted with their last chance. As the trailers have told us and as one could probably guess without even seeing a trailer the further Anna gets in her pregnancy, the more psychotic and dangerous her fixation on John becomes resulting in a dangerous game that leaves John and Laura fighting to regain control of their future together and the future of their unborn child.

The most irritating thing about When the Bough Breaks is its consistent tendency to follow the rules rather than letting its characters take audiences in new or more interesting directions. The film sets up early that Laura is resistant to intimacy and that John is immediately jealous of the connection his wife seems to share with Anna-a connection that should be his. One might think this is established in order to make the Laura character more blind to what eventually develops or to make the John character more susceptible to Anna's come-ons, but no. Instead, as the pregnancy gets further along and the obsession grows more serious the film conveniently moves Chestnut's John to the forefront of dealing with all things having to do with Sinclair's Anna whereas Hall's Laura is more or less pushed out of the picture. In short, things are done out of convenience for the story rather than organically from character choices or instincts reiterating that staged feeling the film exudes. Though the film tries to cover this by pushing Anna's character a little further into crazy town than we might expect it's difficult to double back given we've already picked up on the fact the script will continue to convolute whatever necessary in order to make the story work for what the writers want it to be rather than what it could be. This happens again when the script wants to make the audience question whether or not Laura is actually ready to take care of a child and be a mother or if she's too wrapped up in her own career to take on something as life-altering. Whereas the film begins with Laura wholly dedicated to her cause the tone soon shifts when she is presented with a new career opportunity. This is of course all for the sake of an excuse to draw John and Anna closer together, but in another attempt to double back, be self-aware, or simply let audiences know the movie knows what it's doing-Anna calls out Laura for how funny and obvious it seems that she is suddenly always away and doesn't seem to carry as strong a desire to be a mother anymore. Were rookie screenwriter Jack Olsen to allow the story to take its own route rather than force it to adhere to a familiar model we might actually have something worth discussing here.

Things aren't completely terrible though as Rossi as the villainous boyfriend delivers the film's most interesting performance despite the script not making him as intelligent as he seems he might be. Rather than actually displaying any intelligence we must draw our own conclusions that Rossi's Mike is more a war-wracked veteran who was forced to grow old too young and has turned to the drink to soothe his pain while acting on every impulse before considering thinking things through. It seems Rossi at least gave this character portrayal some thought as much of these tendencies are taken from cues in his performance rather than any solid proof the script provides. This is more than can be said for what the script gives Michael K. Williams and Romany Malco, two charismatic and magnetic performers, to do as both are absolutely wasted in thankless roles. There are a few scenes in which the necessary tension is executed well enough, but for every scene where actual thrills are elicited there are a handful where decisions are made that make zero sense. The one that overrides all in terms of the movie operating on choices convenient for itself rather than within a world of rational human beings where decisions are made based on logic is the fact that given the relationship the film first establishes between John and Laura that John wouldn't immediately tell Laura what is going on with their new surrogate. There is an excuse offered up by way of John not wanting to ruin this experience further for Laura as she has put so much weight and energy into making this pregnancy as authentic as possible given it will be the only time they experience such a thing and while that is certainly understandable some things just can't be saved and it feels John would have understood that much earlier than he does. Worse, when John finally does own up (only after Anna accuses him of raping her in front of Laura and the cops, mind you) he along with Laura and Williams' detective character, Roland, come up with a plan so transparent that they are operating solely on the hope that Anna, despite her clear wit and conniving ways, is gullible and desperate enough to take whatever she can get from John in terms of affection. It's not hard to tell how things ultimately end up.

Laura (Regina Hall) and her husband John become victims of their seemingly innocent surrogates dangerous games.
When the Bough Breaks could have taken the Basic Instinct template and used it as a platform to explore the harsh realities of how perception overrides truth (see Thomas Vinterberg's terrifically excruciating The Hunt for a more searing account of how one lie can ruin countless lives). There is plenty of fertile ground here, especially with the movies choice to use an all-black cast and the current landscape of race relations in America at the moment, for the film to discuss how certain people can use their outward facade and natural identifiers to deceive and trick others. The young girl turning on the innocence when necessary, the wealthy African-American man not immediately being taken in for questioning despite such accusations and that's not even the extent of the potential ground When the Bough Breaks gives itself to talk about and still does nothing with. There are entire segments of the film dedicated to the process of different avenues a couple can go through in order to conceive and while this film in particular focuses on the surrogacy method there is still plenty of room in which to shed a light on the inner turmoil couples go through in such circumstances, but instead the script only uses this tragedy as a plot device to get from one point to another so that it can in fact give us another version of this story we've seen time and time again with only a slightly different packaging so as to not completely look like the corporate mandated September offering that is more or less guaranteed to garner Sony/Screen Gems a healthy profit. If you'd like to dispute the fact When the Bough Breaks does indeed have some type of artistic integrity or ambition and that these people aren't purely here for the paycheck go ahead and take a look at the last two Septembers when both No Good Deed and The Perfect Guy debuted for the studio and ended up making between $54 and $60 million worldwide on paltry budgets of $13 and $12 million. The trend goes back even further to when the studio released the BeyoncĂ©/Idris Elba thriller Obsessed in the spring of 2009 and made $73 million worldwide on a $20 million budget. That movie was about a happy and successful African-American couple whose lives were interrupted when a psycho temp starts stalking Elba's character. That isn't to say movies like these don't have their place or that they can't be enjoyable, but more that they are explicitly being made with black actors to serve an audience that is too often ignored and thus studios are able to make a nice profit off a starved demographic because it's one of the few offerings strictly for that audience. In short, the black film-going community deserves better than this. See Southside With You instead.