The fulfillment of wishes — to fall in love, to let justice prevail, to overcome adversity with dignity and strength — is one of the main reasons we as a species tell stories and, more recently, make films. Not all wishes are so noble, of course, as is the case with “Home Sweet Hell,” a rancid comedy fueled by male entitlement and uxoricidal rage.
Starring Katherine Heigl and Patrick Wilson (the latter, coincidentally enough, also headlines the similarly repellent “Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife”), “Home Sweet Hell” is the cinematic equivalent of the guy who’s so busy ranting and raving about how untrustworthy women are that he hasn’t noticed everyone’s backed away from him in fear.
Last year’s “Gone Girl” was also about a vindictive, homicidal, hyper-organized harpy as seen through the eyes of her wronged husband, but if Rosamund Pike‘s Amy is a cartoon, Heigl’s pearl-donning, sex-scheduling Mona is a doodle. More pertinently, “Gone Girl” featured other female characters like Carrie Coon’s concerned sister and Kim Dickens’ committed detective — normal, grounded women who serve as counterexamples to show not all women are crazy and who emphasize just how singularly unhinged and extreme Amy is.
But there’s no such thing as a good woman in “Home Sweet Hell,” even Mona’s little daughter is a monster in the making. Add director Anthony Burns’ sleazy camera, which shows us a topless woman drunkenly waving around a samurai sword — an anonymous bimbo we’re invited to laugh at while ogling her tits — and you can’t help feeling bad for the actors who have lent themselves to be the public faces (and breasts) of this heap of acrid misogyny.
The film begins where so many others do, with a well-to-do husband and father of two needing to rebel against his square, suburbanite existence. That’s how Don (Wilson) comes to hire the young, flirtatious Dusty (Jordana Brewster) as the latest salesperson at his furniture store — a move that’s back-slappingly encouraged by his other employee (Jim Belushi): “The point [is] eye candy. We need something to look at during the day.”
Mona’s irritation about the new addition to the furniture store’s staff explodes into earth-scorching wrath when Don and Dusty embark on an affair that results in a pregnancy. Determined to protect her Stepford-perfect reputation amidst Dusty’s attempts at blackmail for hush-up cash, Mona convinces her husband to do away with his other woman.
When the poison he uses appears not to take, Mona steps in to finish the job. The things that make Mona a great housewife — namely, her giant rubber gloves and aptitude for precise measurements — also make her a skilled killer. Heigl manages to squeeze in an ounce of campy dark humor as she saws Dusty in two in her pristine ponytail and pearly-white underwear, smiling with Martha Stewart satisfaction at another job well done.
Mona remains unflappable when a detective (Chi McBride) and Dusty’s former criminal associates separately investigate the murdered woman’s disappearance. Amused by Don’s increasing panic, she dismisses Dusty’s friends’ threats of violence. “He said he was gonna rape us?” she sneers. “Yeah, the whole family? At the same time?” Carlo Allen, Ted Elrick, and Tom Lavagnino’s script could have mined a lot more black comedy from taking Mona’s side — and Heigl, despite playing it too broad here, has the comic timing to make her character a shrewish anti-heroine.
But instead, we’re stuck with Don’s empty morality and Wilson’s blank stares, which rob us precisely of the kind of getting-away-with-it glee on which this kind of dark comedy is supposed to run. By the end, it’s clear that every step and turn in the plot was meant to justify Don doing something terrible to his wife — a moral accounting that’s not only wildly imprecise but also feels entirely hollow.
Despite a fervent belief in humanity’s infinite creativity, I’m doubtful that an inoffensive, or even just a fair-minded, comedy can be made based on the fantasy of harming one’s wife. And if it can in fact be done, “Home Sweet Hell” sure as heck isn’t doing it.