If his post-“Mad Men” career has taught us anything, it’s that Jon Hamm is a natural comic actor who happens to be great in dramatic roles rather than the other way around. At the risk of downplaying his exemplary work as Don Draper, the 52-year-old has seemed most in his element in the likes of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and especially last year’s criminally underseen “Confess, Fletch.” “Maggie Moore(s)” finds him somewhere in the middle of the comedy/drama spectrum as a small-town police chief investigating the murders of two women with the same name — an intriguing premise to be sure, but one that Hamm’s “Mad Men” co-star John Slattery, in his sophomore directorial effort, struggles to bring to a satisfying conclusion.
Part of the problem is that it isn’t actually a mystery. Beginning with a title card informing us that “some of this actually happened,” the film wastes little time telling us who’s responsible for at least one of the deceased Maggie Moores. That would be her husband Jay (Micah Stock), who hires a deaf heavy he should have known not to trust (Happy Anderson) to merely scare her after she wises up to his shady business dealings and declares her intention to leave him. Instead she ends up burnt to a crisp inside her car, with Jordan (Hamm) and a fellow officer (Nick Mohammed of “Ted Lasso”) tasked with figuring out what the audience already knows.
Tina Fey then enters the proceedings as Rita, next-door neighbor of the first Maggie to wind up dead. A recent divorcee who invites Jordan in for a meal rather than answer his questions in the doorway, she’s breezy and charming in the way that Fey always is. The film doesn’t call on Fey to do anything we haven’t seen her do before, which would register as more of a problem if everything she does here weren’t so enjoyable. She’s also absent for long stretches, which is more puzzling than anything in the scheming narrative: Why cast Tina Fey as your co-lead if you aren’t going to feature her as much as you possibly can?
As the pathetic, out-of-his-depth husband who sets his wife’s demise in motion and can do little more than watch helplessly as the situation he created spirals out of control, Stock anchors the film when Hamm and Fey are absent. His character seems intended to evoke William H. Macy in “Fargo” — only rather than the sales manager at a car dealership, he’s the owner of a submarine-sandwich franchise who’s been stocking his shelves with expired food because he can’t afford the corporate-mandated ingredients. More contemptible than pitiful, his only concern when his wife gets murdered is covering his tracks.
If you can’t tell whether or not this sounds like a comedy, there’s a good reason for that: “Maggie Moore(s)” can’t seem to figure it out either. The transition from one scene to the next can feel like going from a romantic comedy to a Coen brothers-inflected crime drama, only without the Coens’ ability to be both darkly comic and deathly serious at the same time. The further into its investigation the movie gets, and the more dour its tone becomes, the more you wish “Maggie Moore(s)” would lighten up and focus on the dynamic between Hamm and Fey. It almost feels like two different movies, one of which is far more compelling than the other — every scene that doesn’t feature Hamm and Fey being charming will have you counting down the moments until they’re back onscreen together.
Slattery previously directed “God’s Pocket,” a melancholy drama featuring a posthumous performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, and clearly has a way with his fellow actors — there, too, his talented ensemble’s performances proved to be the highlight. And while Hamm and Fey are the highlight, which is especially unsurprising given the chemistry they previously displayed in “30 Rock,” they’re neither playing to their strengths nor playing against type here. Both feel like unremarkable characters portrayed by remarkable actors who aren’t given the opportunity to display their full talents. The result is a dark crime comedy that, like the harebrained schemers at its center, more often than not feels two-bit.