Discovering a man held captive in a bunker for 30 years should be more compelling than it proves in “Inheritance.” This overlong tale spends most of its nearly two hours as a somewhat draggy, talky mystery before finally deciding to be a thriller, with credibility lacking throughout. Questionable lead casting further undermines this second directorial feature for Brit Vaughn Stein, which is an improvement on his first — the terribly arch, self-penned neo-noir “Terminal” — but doesn’t find terra much more firma in Matthew Kennedy’s tepid potboiler of a script. The U.S. production launches on home-turf streaming platforms May 22, having debuted on DirectTV in April after its coronavirus-canceled Tribeca Film Festival premiere fell through.
A hyperbolic opening edited too much like a trailer shows tycoon Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton) staggering to an apparent heart-attack death. Afterward we meet the rest of his family, now gathered for the funeral at their aristocratic “summer house” estate. His two children are carrying on a dynastic tradition of high-powered positions, with eldest Lauren (Lily Collins) a crusading Manhattan District Attorney, while William (Chace Crawford) is a Congressman whose reelection campaign is imperiled by corruption allegations.
Everyone including matriarch Catherine (Connie Nielsen) and longtime counsel Harold (Michael Beach) keep assuring Lily that daddy loved and respected her equally, despite his objections to her public-service career and choice of a husband (Marque Richardson as Scott). But that’s clearly not true, as underlined by the reading of a will that leaves Lily one-twentieth the fortune bequeathed to her brother.
Archer did, however, leave her something else, in the form of a manila envelope bearing a cryptic message that Harold gives Lily later on. It points toward the secret entrance out in the woods to a dank underground complex, where dad had written “the truth must stay buried.” That truth, it turns out, is a shaggy man found alarmingly held captive in this sunless prison.
Lily is supposed to be the ethically upright member of a clan otherwise as ruthless as it is rich. So it immediately makes little sense that she’d hesitate in letting this poor, filthy specimen free, despite his pleas. Instead, she spends the next couple days interrogating him — meanwhile blowing off pressing obligations to her spouse, child and a high-profile court case — in order to suss out just why he’s here. And the man who eventually identifies himself as one Morgan Warner (Simon Pegg) takes his time parceling out that info. His story, unfolding in sporadic flashbacks, paints an ugly portrait of erstwhile party buddy Archer as a gambler, marital cheat, accidental killer and sadistic warden. But as pitiful as his predicament is, Morgan also seems to be toying with the Monroe offspring who’s “inherited” him.
In the movie’s production notes, Stein says he was attracted to the screenplay for its elements of “prescient, timely satire.” Yet there’s scant trace of that in the finished film, which could’ve sorely used a little ironical wit in its obvious, slightly soap-operatic portrait of a wealthy, well-connected clan who unsurprisingly have some skeletons in the closet. It doesn’t help that Collins, though actually the age of her character (31), might more easily pass for a high schooler than a metropolitan D.A. The more briefly seen Crawford seems just as far-fetched as a driven, national-level political operative.
Nor does Pegg, who also starred in “Terminal,” exactly transcend stunt casting here. Slimmed to an emaciated degree, his voice pushed down to a flatter American register, he makes a game effort yet never seems dangerous, let alone diabolical. A late twist (in fact rather too late) meant to ratchet up the minimal anxiety level fails in large part because we just can’t find this figure alarming: If he’s meant to be “pure evil” à la Hannibal Lecter, the effect is instead more like a ticked-off David Spade in a fright wig. A climactic revelation meant to shock may well make viewers laugh out loud instead.
There’s too much jabber and too little tension to the goings-on, which Stein lends polish but little plausibility. Shot primarily in Alabama despite the New York setting, it’s a well-appointed film whose slickness tends to exacerbate the narrative’s humorless silliness. Ditto Marlon E. Espino’s original score, which ladles on generic, breathless suspense cues no more unsettling than the misguided conceit of having Pegg’s character constantly recite the ingredients to key lime pie. Because what could be more terrifying than … um, dessert?