Thursday, December 7, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

“I wanted a tart, and then adventure befell me.”

Cinemagoers everywhere spent the better part of 2023 hashtagging #Barbenheimer, a playful portmanteau that gave the industry a much-needed — albeit painfully brief — burst of genuine enthusiasm. Tumblr artists ‘round the globe brought the meme to life, creating one-sheets, remixes, and other animated curiosities depicting a team-up for the ages: A pastel pin-up meets a pork-pied prophet. An erudite physicist meets a fashion idol. A smasher of patriarchy meets a destroyer of worlds. It was all very charming for a while there, but few could have predicted that director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite) would take hold of that particular ball and run with it, presenting unwitting audiences with a new icon cut from the very cloth they’d all so eagerly stitched together. Though by no means a crowd-pleasing epic in the vein of blockbusters like Barbie or Oppenheimer, the curious, absurd, and deeply horny Poor Things feels like their misfit descendent, a perverted cacophony of existential dread and unrelenting wonder.
Based on the 1992 epistolary by Alasdair Gray and set in an alternate Victorian Age that weds dreamy steampunk to the cockeyed madness of Terry Gilliam, Poor Things opens on Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) toddling uneasily around the ornate London mansion of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, under prosthetics that make his already-jagged features look as if they were sliced to bits and mashed back together). Though clearly a woman grown, Bella speaks in half-formed syllables and nonsensical grunts, occasionally urinating through her stockings and leaving a messy puddle in the foyer. Is she injured, addled, or otherwise under-developed? Well, it’s complicated: Bella is the reanimated corpse of a pregnant woman who threw herself off a bridge recently enough that Godwin — a mad scientist whose work seems to principally consist of sewing together mismatched animal parts — could salvage her body and replace her brain with that of her unborn child. This new Bella is a blank slate, bouncing giddily through the domestic playpen Godwin has built for her.

Bella quickly grows too intelligent and ambitious for such a restrictive environment, though, and she begs Godwin to let her discover the wider world on her own. But a lifetime of public persecution has soured Godwin on humanity, so he denies her, agreeing only to a proposal of marriage from Max McCandles (Remy Youssef) — the eager village doctor he’s employed to observe Bella’s progress — on the condition that he and Bella stay in his home forever. Enter Mr. Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a delightfully impish lothario who promises Bella all the adventure she can handle, and more. They abscond to the European mainland, gobbling treats and engaging in marathon sessions of what a beguiled Bella refers to as “furious jumping” (“Why don’t people just do this all the time?” she asks when they come up for air). Now free to roam, Bella begins a cross-continental odyssey of enlightenment, a journey of “sugar and violence” that imbues our precocious crusader with new insights into life, death, and the so-called polite society she’s missed out on for so long.
Set to a jocular Jerskin Fendix score that recalls an insouciant infant stomping on an accordion and lensed with the same fishbowl distortions that cinematographer Robbie Ryan employed on The Favourite, Poor Things is an undoubtedly eccentric but thoroughly sharp and keenly-observed fairy tale that blends Yorgos Lanthmos’ signature incredulity with a remarkable optimism and lust for discovery. Tony McNamara’s (co-writer of both Lanthimos’ The Favourite and Stone’s Cruella) playful screenplay bursts at the seams with musical eloquence, delivering a mix of insight — “When we know the world, the world is ours!” — and irreverence — “I must go punch that baby!” — that pairs perfectly with the aesthetic delights (and occasional horrors) on screen. Some will scoff dismissively when Bella takes lessons in cynicism from the handsome Harry (Jerrod Carmichael) or attends socialist rallies with French prostitute Toinette (Suzy Bemba), but the joy with which the film revels in Bella’s self-actualization frees it from any alleged posturing or pretension.
And while it’s expertly composed by every technical measure, absolutely nothing in Poor Things works without Emma Stone, whose performance is nothing short of monumental. Bella is at once fierce, vulnerable, inquisitive, steely, rapturous, bemused, devastated, and unabashedly horny, and Stone modulates them all with staggering physical and syntactic control. Bella’s refusal to adhere to the paternalistic norms of her age — literalized against Christopher Abbott’s General Blessington in the film’s jubilant final movement — is less an act of feminist defiance (though it is most certainly that) than it is a celebration of metaphysical agency, which Stone gradually brings to the fore over Poor Things’ 141 minutes. Simply by embracing the imperfection of her design and addressing the essential hypocrisies of those who mean to control her, Stone’s sex-crazed Bride of Frankenstein achieves the kind of emotional and intellectual catharsis that eludes many of us well into our august years. Her revelation — along with the rest of Poor Things — is a gift to us all.

Poor Things hits U.S. theaters on Friday, December 8th.

1 comment:

  1. Although I saw one Poor Things trailer last year, I avoided this review until seeing the movie because I wanted to go into it as blind as possible. I’m glad I did. It was a spiritual sequel to Barbie (which up until tonight was my favorite movie of 2023) and its production values and inventiveness rival that plastic wonderland.
    You review is an excellent encapsulation of the magic of Stone et al. The only thing I feel I could add is that Poor Things felt like a 90 minute movie that left me both thoroughly satisfied, and jealously wanting more.