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Film Reviews: Poor Things & American Fiction

Arts Review2023-12-15By: Marc Glassman

 

Eccentric Visions

Poor Things & American Fiction

By Marc Glassman

 

Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos, director

Tony McNamara, script based on the novel by Alasdair Gray

Starring: Emma Stone (Bella Baxter), Mark Ruffalo (Duncan Wedderburn), Willem Dafoe (Dr. Godwin Baxter), Ramy Youssef (Max McCandles), Christopher Abbott (Alfie Blessington), Jerrod Carmichael (Harry Astley), Margaret Qualley (Felicity), Kathryn Hunter (Madame Swiney), Hannah Schygulla (Martha Von Kurtzroc)

 

The creative marriage of the late endlessly imaginative Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray and the visionary Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is surely taking place somewhere sublime, but whether it’s heaven or hell is hard to determine. Over the past decade, Lanthimos has acquired a reputation as an intensely strange but award-winning director, whose most recent black comedy, The Favourite, about the love life of the last Stuart monarch, the bi-sexual Queen Anne, turned into an unexpected popular success. Thanks to Olivia Colman’s Oscar win as Anne, Lanthimos has been able to make a bigger budgeted film based on one of Gray’s novels, the highly regarded but seemingly unfilmable Poor Things.

Like Lanthimos, Gray had a taste for the bizarre. His Poor Things was inspired by Frankenstein, with some Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson thrown in for good measure. Bella Baxter, the “poor thing,” is a variation on Frankenstein, a suicide brought back to life by a terribly mutilated surgeon, Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter, who was a victim of experiments by his mad scientist of a father. The beautiful Bella’s brain has been replaced by “God” with that of her unborn child and—suffice it to say—she has a lot of growing up to do. 

The narrative picks up when Bella, whose brain is rapidly maturing, decides to run off to the Continent with the scoundrel Duncan Wedderburn. The landscape and mechanical devices take on a steam punk look as Wedderburn, a fatuous lawyer and awesomely successful lover, shows Bella an astonishingly good time in Portugal—a land of fado and butter tarts—and Egypt before their adventures began to unravel. Initially a shuffling inarticulate creature, Bella has matured by this time into a dancer and reader of fine literature while remaining naïve. After she gives away a fortune, the pair arrives destitute in Paris, where Bella pursues her destiny as a high-class prostitute as Wedderburn falls apart psychologically and physically.

Eventually, they return—separately—to England where Bella finds out about her past—why she tried to commit suicide—and can come to terms with “God” her doctor-stepfather, and his appointed heir and husband for her, Max. If this all sounds like a besotted Victorian novel run amuck, that’s because it is. And you can read more about Alasdair Gray’s interpretation of Poor Things, or at least that of his descendants, at a very impressive website: thealasdairgrayarchive.org/project/poor-things-a-novel-guide

But Poor Things is more (and less) than the novel: it’s a Yorgos Lanthimos film. He’s taken Grey’s very witty Glaswegian perspective on the 19th century novel and turned it into a devastating critique of sexual relations, with Bella assuming the role of the aggressor—a Tom Jones—in an age when women taking the power was nearly impossible. In fact, Bella is shown repeatedly to be an idealist, a poet, capable of upsetting society by being forthright and raw and almost bestial. It makes the film outrageously funny at times—and provocative all the time.

Poor Things is a beautifully realized film with a great visual look: the sets are particularly impressive throughout as are the costumes. Kudos must go to a cast at the height of their powers. Willem Dafoe evokes the sad humanity of “God;” Mark Ruffalo is wonderfully absurd as Wedderburn but outdoing them all is Emma Stone, who is exceptional as Bella. 

Poor Things is so bizarre a film that it is hard to recommend to everyone but those who relish something powerful and truly unique will enjoy this truly amazing film.  

 

American Fiction

Cord Jefferson, director & script based on Erasure by Percival Everett

Starring: Jeffrey Wright (Thelonious “Monk” Ellison), Tracee Ellis Ross (Lisa Ellison), Issa Rae (Sintara Golden), Sterling K. Brown (Clifford Ellison), John Ortiz (Arthur), Erika Alexander (Coraline), Adam Brody (Wiley), Leslie Uggams (Agnes Ellison)

 

Few can produce a sophisticated, but comic take on the representation of Blacks in American popular culture, but Cord Jefferson is certainly one of them. American Fiction may be the first film directed by the brilliant Black American artist but he’s already garnered Emmys and Writers Guild prizes and perhaps most significantly, an NAACP Image Award. He’s a wickedly sharp writer, who has been involved in two of the most acclaimed TV series of recent years, Succession and Watchmen. If anyone can satirize the different ways that Blacks are viewed in North American society–by themselves and the dominant White culture–it’s Jefferson.

American Fiction is a satire on what passes for having an authentic voice in dramatizing Black life in a typical U.S. city. In contrast to the action-oriented stereotypical Black leading man, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a neurotic author and literature professor, whose problems with his family stem from their ego-ridden attitudes towards each other. Of course, he’s as much to blame as them. Played brilliantly by Jeffrey Wright, “Monk” tries to act above it all but he’s a mass of resentment towards everything he considers to be part of the established order of things, whether that’s academia, publishing houses or the Church. 

What’s particularly onerous to Monk is the rise of faux-gritty novels about life in the ghetto; not only does resent that some have become best-sellers, but he is also outraged at their language, which strikes him as being desperately fraudulent. Issa Rae plays Sintara Golden, who has written just such a book, and after seeing her promoting her novel—and finding out that yet another publisher has rejected his latest literary masterpiece—Monk decides on desperate measures. Under the pseudonym of Stagger Leigh, he writes just such a faux novel and, naturally, it becomes the best-seller that he’s never had before. 

While working on the book, Monk finds himself falling in love with Coraline, a smart caring woman, but given his rancorous personality, he ends up ruining the relationship. Though Monk is funny and charismatic, he alienates everyone around him, including his gay brother, a doctor who could use his support. The brothers have to deal with the passing of their sister, also a doctor and the decline of their mother—brilliantly played by Leslie Uggams—who is slowly losing her memory and ability to cope with life. 

The comedy in the film, which is mixed so well with the sad family dramas, is ratcheted up towards the end as Monk finds himself on a literary jury which is poised to give his “Stagger Leigh” novel a big prize. What should he do? 

Cord Jefferson has clearly had a lot of fun constructing American Fiction. This is a funny film that wickedly attacks racial and literary stereotypes. It wouldn’t be anywhere as successful if it wasn’t for the presence of Jeffrey Wright, who gives an award-worthy performance as Monk Ellison. He makes the story three-dimensional; beyond the comedy, there exists a drama about a man learning about his life—and you ended up caring about that man, Monk, and his maturation.

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