Saturday, December 30, 2023

Poor Things: A Review (Review #1783)



The term "acquired taste" is one that Poor Things rightly earns. A film that in my opinion is trying too hard to be eccentric, it just left me cold.

Mad scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is keeping his newest creation far from the public gaze. She is Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a woman he literally brought back to life. He found her shortly after she successfully committed suicide, and to his surprise found she was heavily pregnant. He opted to install her unborn child's brain into her head and managed to create a new woman.

Bella stumbles through Baxter's home a bit like an unhinged Helen Keller only with all her senses intact. She says the first thing that pops into her mind to "God" as she calls Godwin. Bella is uncouth in her eating and has motor skill issues, but she has discovered a new hobby: auto-erotic exercises with fruit.

She has also discovered Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). Max is Godwin's assistant whom he brought to monitor Bella's progress. She is not in love with him as the concept is foreign to her. Somehow, though, Max has fallen for Bella. A marriage is soon planned, as Godwin knows he won't last forever. 

Enter Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). A shady lawyer brought in to draw up the marriage contract, he soon discovers Bella as the ultimate sexual conquest. They run off together, with Max distraught and Godwin merely non-plussed. All their "furious jumping" is too much even for lothario Duncan, who attempts to taper down our nympho. She, however, will not be denied. A sailing journey to get Bella under control fails, especially after she discovers both philosophy and poverty. Eventually, they end up destitute in Paris, where he goes mad and she goes to a brothel.

Bella becomes the queen of whores, yet even her growing knowledge of such things as socialism and lesbianism seems rote. Finally brought back to London by Max to see a dying Godwin, there is one last twist before their nuptials courtesy of Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott). Will Bella become her own woman?

Essentially a more lighthearted Frankenstein with a bit of The Island of Doctor Moreau and Freaks, I was not impressed with seeing how many times and in how many ways Emma Stone could get humped. I think it was because sometimes things were a bit too eccentric for me in its efforts to be funny. I get what director Yorgos Lanthimos was going for in his visual style. The film is split into a black-and-white opening section and a color section, bringing color once Bella finds the joys of furious jumping.

I get that this is some kind of steampunk universe, where things are exaggerated and overt. It is just that I did not laugh once. I think it is because I could never shake the idea that Poor Things was trying too hard. Everything from the performances to the visuals to Tony McNamara's screenplay adaptation of Alasdair Gray's novel were too open about their eccentricity for me to accept even this fantasy world.

"Did he lay with you?", a displeased Duncan asks Bella after she wanders off without him to explore the joys of Lisbon. "No, we were against the wall," she replied in her not-quite monotone but more staccato delivery. A lot of what is meant to be funny just did not hit me. At one point, Duncan attempts to literally toss another passenger, Martha (Hanna Schygulla) off the ship for giving Bella endless books to read. Martha seems almost delighted by his unhinged efforts, but as I watched I was not laughing. It was not horror at the sight but my sense that, while I got that all this is supposed to be broad, it did not impress me.

That also goes to the performances. Many have lauded Emma Stone's turn as Bella, our naive nympho. I will grant that her performance is technically skilled. However, that is what I kept seeing: a technically skilled performance as opposed to the character. I never saw "Bella Baxter" but "Emma Stone acting". I do not know if that is a compliment or insult here. Did she give a good performance? Yes. Did she ever convince me she was the character? No.

I would say the same for all the performances. Again, I appreciate that Poor Things is meant to be broad. I just thought it was a bit too broad for me. I could not shake the idea that since everyone was in on the joke, it just did not make it funny for me. Ruffalo and Dafoe each play their part in the same vein, with deliberately mild exaggerations. I confess never believing that Duncan would sacrifice everything for the sake of pleasing Bella, probably because things were played so big that it did not make sense to me for him to be driven mad by her loss. Dafoe was probably the most grounded out of the three, not making Godwin into a crazed mad scientist (even if he was that). 

Poor Things does have a strong aesthetic in its world building. That should be a plus in its favor. Its two-hour-plus runtime was a strong negative though. Maybe the film could have lost a couple of Bella's sexual encounters in the brothel, such as a father bringing his two boys to see him have sex with her to teach them about sex.

Ultimately though, I found less to like than things to hate in Poor Things. I did not hate it, but I could not embrace it. 

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