Hitchcock famously defined suspense as allowing the audience to see a bomb planted underneath a table, giving them the exact parameters by which it will explode—known only to the audience—and then allowing the unaware characters at the table to converse like normal, until the inevitable. “When the Bough Breaks” attempts to apply this theory to a pregnancy. The only bomb is the movie itself.
The Taylors (Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall) are the perfect specimens. They look like the people in the unsold picture frame and they live in what appears to be a vertical slice of the Playboy Mansion, suffused with traces of intellectualism—pseudo or otherwise—such as abstract art and pets named after literary characters. The one thing they don’t have—can’t have—is a baby. But we live in miraculous times, so the Taylors find a surrogate mother in the blushing, young Anna (Jaz Sinclair), who comes packaged with her brutish, military-bound boyfriend, Mike (Theo Rossi). Like the Taylors, Anna seems to be the perfect specimen, but in a movie of this sort, ulterior motives are like flesh wounds: everybody’s got one.
While I like the narrative foundation of using a pregnancy as a ticking time bomb, it acts as an ancient Indian burial ground, as everything built upon it withers away. When the film tries to be sexy, it comes off as juvenile—written by someone who spends a little too much time in the Internet’s darker corners. When Laura is having a nervous breakdown—brought on by the knowledge that her baby is in a crazy woman’s stomach, and the fact that her husband might be cheating on her—John attempts to calm her down by saying “I could bounce a quarter off your ass,” which is delivered with a comical amount of sobriety. However, under the rule of the broken clock, some of the awkward dialogue actually works in scenes where awkwardness is called for.
Even accomplished actors like Michael K. Williams, who can shoot a look like nobody else, crumble underneath the writing—reduced to exposition dumps and unnatural inquiries. There’s a funny moment where Williams rushes into a room, sweaty and panting, when he was clearly standing a few inches outside of the frame. Rossi, who did a fine job with one of the juicer parts on “Sons of Anarchy,” plays a caricature—a stomping, chest-puffing buffoon, who would look more natural chomping on a cigar and chasing Mickey Mouse with a giant hammer. He also has the dumbest money-making scam I’ve ever heard of. Sinclair must have been cast solely on her wide-eyed, baby fat innocence, because she’s completely wooden—can’t blame the script for that one.
As the film stumbles toward its conclusion, bodies are mangled, pierced and bloodied, over and over again. Characters transform from human beings to supernatural sponges of violence, able to shrug off a fire iron through the leg like it’s a frisky puppy. It reminded me of when I took an improv class in high school, and almost every student would end their sketch with physical violence—it was all they could come up with.
What was clearly meant to be an homage to Hitchcock, complete with beautiful women, betrayal and broken bottles, comes off as an homage to one of Brian De Palma’s homages to Hitchcock, and not one of the good ones.
1.5 out of 5 stars