Poor Things Review | Out of the Mouths of Babes

by Andrew Parker

A bawdy, ribald, and frequently laugh out loud comedy, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things pushes the boundaries and buttons of the viewer to great effect. A mash-up of competing visual, comedic, and thematic styles that shouldn’t work together on paper, Poor Things is a filthy minded high wire act, the likes of which haven’t been seen on screen before. It’s assuredly more than a little indulgent, and absolutely overlong at nearly two and a half hours, but within its sensory and comedic overload lies a lot of thoughtful musings about the adolescent mind that lives inside us all, societal repression, and female representation.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) is far from an ordinary woman. In fact, she’s basically a reanimated corpse, brought back to life by disfigured and more than a little worse for wear mad scientist Dr. Goodwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Bella was legally dead when Dr. Baxter found her, but healthy enough for him to replace her dead brain with that of an infant. Now a fully grown woman with the mind and social graces of a child, Bella is becoming a lot more curious about her body and the world around her. One of Dr. Baxter’s closest students (Ramy Youssef) has become rather smitten with Bella, but her affections seem to lie with globetrotting lothario, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a gambling and sex addicted cad who promises to show her the world. But the more Bella learns about the adult world, the more she wants to become an independent woman.

Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel by frequent Lanthimos collaborator Tony McNamara (The Favourite, The Great), Poor Things most obviously offers up critiques on puritanical attitudes towards sexuality and the infantilization of women in the eyes and minds of men. McNamara’s script provides Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and his cast plenty of risqué, satirical material to sink their teeth (and other body parts) into, but also a chance to examine the hypocrisies of the world through the eyes and actions of a blank slate that’s starting to fill up with life. Bella exists in a world that at first looks black and white, before opening up to cotton candy skies, opulent cruise ships, and sometimes harsh, cold realities. It’s an easy visual metaphor for Lanthimos to handle, but one enhanced by McNamara’s intelligent handling of outlandish situations and characters.

Poor Things takes the structure of a traditional hero’s journey and places it into the context of a world where heroes don’t exist in any sort of traditional sense. As a woman living during a comedically heightened, Victorian-esque time, the most Bella can strive for is a sense of autonomy and a higher degree of intelligence. She wants to experience everything, but also learns that not every experience is worthwhile. The viewer starts to realize that there’s a chance beyond the film’s ending, Bella could die before her still developing brain is able to catch up to her body’s life experience. It’s both a reflection of puritanical traditions and views about feminine worth and sexuality and a sly modernist commentary on the world we live in today, where being overwhelmed all the time seems to be a prevailing mindset.

Bella’s journeys put her into contact with a lot of curious, frequently self-serving characters that will inform her view of the world for better and for worse. Her interactions with the doctor who created her and his student are portraits of skewed, but relatively unconditional love that serves as a means of controlling her. Wedderburn offers Bella more freedom sexually, but he would prefer she did most of her talking in the bedroom. A world weary cynic (Jerrod Carmichael) that she befriends on a cruise ship thinks the best way to teach Bella is by showing her the indignities and injustices of the world without any degree of tact or sugar coating. A brothel owner (Kathryn Hunter) in Paris wisens Bella up to the link between sexuality, influence, and commerce. And a righteous asshole (Christopher Abbott) with a somewhat tragic backstory shows up at the eleventh hour to provide Bella with key clues about her body’s unknown past. 

At every step along the way, Lanthimos and McNamara show the changes to Bella’s psyche in grand detail, and while Poor Things has a lot of slow passages for a comedy this heightened and dependent on witty repartee and intricately designed set pieces, the measured and episodic approach allows the cast a great deal of freedom to create meticulously designed performances. Lanthimos’ visual style might be a bit more fantastical, but his staging – complete with cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s rampant and sometimes distracting overuse of wide-angle fish-eye lenses – hasn’t progressed much across his features. But as long as Lanthimos allows his cast and material to shine brightly amid all the frills, decoration, and puffy sleeves, Poor Things remains on rich, fertile comedic ground.

Dafoe, Carmichael, Youssef, and Abbott all get a chance to showcase their skills at crafting layered, eccentric characters, but the bulk of Poor Things’ plaudits belong to Stone and Ruffalo, who give their all in service of a script that demands a lot from them. Ruffalo, working well against type (and playing kind of a comedic riff on the sort of character he portrayed in Jane Campion’s underrated and misunderstood thriller In the Cut), devours the scenery, playing even more of an irrepressible cartoon than his baby minded counterpart. As a picture of false refinement and unchecked male ego, Ruffalo always takes every line of dialogue and over-cranked facial expression to frequently hilarious and scene stealing extremes. Few performers have relished the chance to play this much of an obvious cad with as much gusto and misplaces joie de vivre as Ruffalo does here. It’s the kind of performance that’s given when the actor behind it fears they’ll never have a second chance to make this specific of an impression.

The same, and even more, can be said for Stone, who continues to evolve into one of the most versatile and interesting on screen performers of this generation. Stone’s turn as Bella is as enriching as it is daring. The character is sexually and mentally unhinged, and yet, Stone is able to make the sometimes uncouth, rude, and uncomfortable brusque young woman wholly sympathetic. While the viewer never knows what will become of Bella, it’s clear from Stone’s performance and Lanthimos’ direction of the character that a lot of thought has been given to her arc. On a performative level, Stone is able to make spectacular choices with regard to how she depicts key moments in Bella’s development. If the situation calls for a complete lack of comedic subtlety, Stone will shed every last inhibition to get a laugh or make the viewer squirm in their seats. If it requires something more introspective and thoughtful, Stone is just as capable of turning down the volume to a low hum and wrestle with the complicated, unusual emotions attached to a given situation. It’s the definition of a performance that both goes for broke and still leaves room for a great deal of interpretation; as intelligent as it is chaotic.

Poor Things isn’t meant to be a comedy that can be seen as breezy or easy to sit through. It’s visually meant to evoke the spirit of romanticism, but it’s anything but romantic. It’s deliberately provocative, off putting, and a lot to take in at once, but also never takes the appearance of a lecture or treatise on any of its subjects. It’s packed with wall-to-wall debauchery, but it becomes clearer the longer Poor Things goes on that all of it masks a tremendous amount of suffering and brokenness. It’s a story that frequently laughs to keep from crying, and while the jokes and set pieces hit far more than they miss, it’s the meaning behind all of them that will linger in the mind a lot longer after Poor Things ends.

Poor Things is now playing in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. It expands to additional theatres and cities on Friday, December 22.

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