“Only the truly impatient would snip a minute of Emma Stone’s tour de force performance in Poor Things.”
- Emma Stone's bravura performance
- Mark Ruffalo's gut-busting performance
- The salty, vulgar, hilarious dialogue
- It's a little allegorically obvious
- It almost overstays its welcome
- Those CGI cityscapes
Watch Emma Stone in Poor Things and you just might get ahead of what’s up with her character. Who is this strange woman pounding away on a piano with primitive glee? She walks unsteadily, like it’s new to her. Speaking, too, is a work in progress — an early lurch toward communication and articulation. In naiveté, in petulance, in vocabulary, in her unfiltered stream of questions and blunt opinions, Bella Baxter betrays the unusual truth of her nature. The flashbacks only confirm and explain what Stone’s remarkably physical performance teases from the start: She is literally a child in a woman’s skin, a mistake or miracle of (mad) science bumbling through her own body-swap comedy.
Bella lives in a fantastic, vaguely steampunk Victorian London that she only glimpses from the roof of her creator’s manor, and which we mostly see via gaudy, painterly digital backdrops — a little Terry Gilliam, a little Tim Burton, a little less immersive than either. Her proverbial “father,” who she calls simply “God,” is Dr. Godwin Baxter (Inside‘s Willem Dafoe), a brilliant, deformed surgeon. His face marked with the sutured evidence of his own father’s cruel experiments (a truly amazing puzzle-patchwork makeup job for the actor), Godwin is like Dr. Frankenstein by way of Frankenstein’s monster. It’s one of numerous ways that this baroque fantasia sits in the shadow of Mary Shelley.
Poor Things wears both its influences and its gender politics on its frilly sleeve. The film is the most extravagant and — in some ways — the most obvious allegory yet from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director of deranged provocations like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and another crooked comedy of burning loins beneath period dress, The Favourite. Working from a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, Lanthimos electroshocks all of the feminist subtext of The Modern Prometheus (the alternate title of Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein) into blunt text. It’s a liberation story almost impossible to misread … which would be more of a drag if Stone and her co-stars didn’t throw themselves into the assignment with such demented conviction.
“What a very pretty retard,” stammers Godwin’s new assistant, bashful medical student Max (Ramy Youssef), after Bella casually clocks him in the nose by way of greeting. It’s the most prankishly button-pushing dialogue in Tony McNamara’s often-hilarious screenplay. Max’s instant attraction to the boss’s lab-made, anatomically obsessed quasi-daughter is a dark joke on the blinders of male libido. Toddler upstairs, grown woman elsewhere, Bella is like a walking metaphor for how women are often infantilized and sexualized at once. But even at her most feral and least verbal, she’s a real character; Stone plants a seed of hunger for experience in her first screwball scenes.
That seed blossoms with puberty, as Bella stumbles upon the joys of “working on herself to get happiness” and then the more advanced “furious jumping.” Chasing her newly blossoming desires, she runs off with Duncan Wedderburn, a lusty, vain, mischievous dandy played by Mark Ruffalo. Duncan supports her free-spiritedness, but only so long as it doesn’t eclipse his own; his charm curdles quickly into jealousy and possessiveness. Ruffalo has played amusing dolts before, but he’s never summoned such an inspired caricature of fragile male ego. (When Bella suggests that men’s inability to orgasm repeatedly is a weakness of the whole gender, the look on his face is priceless.)
Bella’s awakening, sexual and otherwise, triggers a shift from black-and-white to full color, as though the movie were stepping out of James Whale homage — out of the laboratories and gothic trappings — and into something more vibrant, Wizard of Oz-style. Lanthimos takes the pop-up-book fantasy aspect of the material as license to flamboyantly indulge: with dreamy iris shots, with a memeable dance, with fish-eye distortion more appropriate here than it felt in The Favourite. Has his work gotten more mainstream or has the mainstream caught up to the deadpan lunacy of his work? Poor Things isn’t so far removed from his international breakthrough, the savage Dogtooth, another portrait of a warped parental experiment that similarly concluded that even the most severely sheltered will eventually claw for freedom.
With its montages of feverish fornication, Poor Things reaches for sex comedy, though its biggest laughs come from how Bella — an ingénue of limitless curiosity, unburdened by any social discomfort — crashes like a bull through the china shop of 19th-century polite society. For a while, the movie almost resembles a parody of a particular kind of softcore European smut; think, in Seinfeldian terms, of a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk. Except that Lanthimos approaches Bella’s coming of age with sincerity, even sentimentality. It’s hard not to wonder if there’s a little of him in Dafoe’s tragic, flawed Godwin, the doctor who fancies himself a man of cold, cynical logic but can’t deny the paternal affection he feels for his lab experiment.
The plot zigzags from Lisbon hotels to a luxury cruise to a Parisian whorehouse, complete with a sobering detour to a seaside slum. Through her travels, Bella discovers carnal pleasure, philosophy, fine cuisine, the guilt of privilege, socialist principle, the world’s oldest profession, and maybe — finally — herself. The movie does go on a bit: A late chapter with Christopher Abbott as the last misogynistic hurdle in our heroine’s voyage of self-actualization makes a point the movie has already cleanly made over the previous two hours.
Excess, though, is half the fun of an outsized satire like Poor Things. In the words of Ruffalo’s ridiculously foppish Duncan, it is meant to be “inhaled with gusto, like life itself.” Only the truly impatient would snip a minute of Stone’s tour de force. She unfurls a whole childhood over the runtime, slowly advancing Bella from the ignorant innocence of the early scenes all the way through to the wiser adulthood she eventually enters, verbal and body language alike evolving from scene to scene. The pathos are downright Karloffian, no bolts required.
Poor Things opens in select theaters Friday, December 8. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.