With the right star, this sort of “stuck out here all alone” thriller is a gift from movie studio heaven: Man, I hope Sandra Bullock figures out that Russian space-shuttle manual so she can get back to Earth. But with the wrong star, it’s like reading that manual. And Ms. Lively is a Russian-manual sort of star.
I, at least, struggle to understand her career. Her performance as a junkie in “The Town” features the “Bride Wars” of Boston accents. Her performance in “The Age of Adaline” — as a woman “cursed” to stay 30 forever — was like watching a mermaid ride a bike. She tries. But her acting hasn’t yet caught up to her algorithm-generated beauty. Alas, there may be no algorithmic solution for that.
So I was less than psyched at the prospect of seeing her shiver on a buoy, stitch her own wounds, talk to animals or play a Nancy. And, as refreshing as it is watching her stand on a surfboard, it’s refreshment that provides some perspective. While some actors make sense on movie screens, there are others who might make better sense on a can of something — beer, beans, air. I can hear you, Hudson skeptics. And all I can say is that the heart wants what the heart wants. I’d actually buy whatever Ms. Hudson was on the can of.
There might be no appreciable industrial difference between what a Kate Hudson can do versus your Blake Livelys. I don’t think they’re interchangeable, but sometimes the movies beg to differ, and the market corrects itself. Don’t love fall in love with Mark Harmon, because here comes Kevin Costner. And sell your Brad Rowe stock, because he’s just going to be replaced by Brad Pitt. (In the late 1990s, that pretty much happened.) But there are continuums, too. Channing Tatum, for instance, is a more elastic, hip-hop-era Brendan Fraser upgrade.
Lots of parts that have gone to Ms. Lively feel as if Ms. Hudson could have played them. But something happened, and suddenly it was someone else’s turn to be “it.” (It’s always someone else’s turn.) And part of what annoys me about the lack of Kate Hudson in my life and the surfeit of Ms. Lively is the same thing that makes me angry when a perfectly good piece of software gets a superfluous update, or a zealous waiter takes my plate at a restaurant: I wasn’t done with that.
Lots of people are fine with seeing Ms. Lively in something called “The Shallows.” (They appreciate the wink.) At the end of June, it was America’s fourth-most-popular movie, continuing the year of good fortune for her and her husband, Ryan Reynolds, another actor who struggled to find his lane as a star, settling for “disfigured comic-book hero” in the surprise winter blockbuster “Deadpool.” And yet, I have to believe that some of those “Shallows” tickets were sold to people who’d never seen a movie like this and assumed the shark was going to win. I feel bad for those people, too.
Laziness kept me in my seat. So did the possibility that the movie might make a “Psycho”-like switch and have Nancy’s useless friend — who looks like a brunet Blake and is only seen on Nancy’s phone — take over the second half. But Todd Haynes didn’t direct “The Shallows.” Jaume Collet-Serra did, and he knows his way around decent junk. He made a couple of those “stop taking my stuff” movies that Liam Neeson does: “Run All Night” and the magnificently bonkers “Non-Stop.”
So Ms. Lively also gets to explore her inner Neeson — maybe even her inner Sigourney Weaver, Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and, with that self-surgery, Rambo. Even if she can’t act, she also can’t lose. And that’s the thing about the “stuck out here all alone” genre: Anybody can do it.
Ms. Lively’s to-do list here includes swimming, shooting flares, eating little crabs and speaking aloud her thoughts. (“Where are you taking me?” she asks the shark.) Physical fitness wins the day, and Ms. Lively is very physically fit.
But a movie like this, if it’s written even semi-competently, can be rigged for triumph. Unlike Ms. Hudson, Ms. Lively seems to need to be liked. She’s up against an enemy that refuses to settle for snacking on that whale carcass and has to keep coming after her. And you don’t begrudge the will to survive, even if it’s just to keep surfing. So when Ms. Lively makes thinking faces to devise a way back to the beach and delivers a sassed-up “uh-uh,” it feels almost inhuman not to at least grip your armrest, at least a little.
I still wish Kate Hudson were in this movie. What can I say? I wanted “Fool’s Gold.” But I didn’t mind getting plain old pyrite, either.