Emma Stone is a tour de force in bizarre but hilarious Poor Things
There are lots of directors with off-kilter sensibilities out there, but few are weirder than Yorgos Lanthimos. The creator of The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The Favourite is unafraid to take audiences to some supremely odd places, with all of his films holding only a tenuous connection to a recognizable reality.
His latest, Poor Things, might just his most out-there yet, and that’s saying something. Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is aptly named, as he has made it his mission in life to play God, creating hybrids out of all sorts of animals. He’s also into reanimation, which is where Bella (Emma Stone) comes into the picture, having been brought back to life following her suicide, with Dr. Baxter putting the brain of the fetus she was carrying into her head.
The result is a child in the body of a woman, and Bella acts how you might expect, walking in a tentative manner, speaking mostly gibberish, and testing every object she comes across. Dr. Baxter brings in one of his students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), to observe her, and he finds out that one of her biggest interests is her own body, and how to bring it as much pleasure as possible. Her explorations soon send her on an adventure that will involve another man, lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), and many others.
Adapted by Tony McNamara from the book by Alasdair Grey, the film is one of the strangest stories about giving a woman agency (sexual and otherwise) that’s ever been put on screen. There is little in the film that is not unsettling, and because it’s a constant parade of oddities, it also becomes one of the funniest movies of the year in the process. Bella’s unfiltered mind leads her to say and do all sorts of unexpected things, and it never fails to be hilarious.
The film also puts the audience on their heels through its audio and visuals. It has a Victorian-era setting to match its Frankenstein-esque story and other sensibilities, along with some steampunk/futuristic elements. Throw in the grotesquerie on display at Dr. Baxter’s house (including his own heavily scarred face), a dissonant soundtrack, and more, and you have an experience that you will only find in a Lanthimos movie.
It’s mentioned in passing early on that Bella’s mind and body are advancing quickly, and it’s fun to watch this play out in subtle ways. Each new sequence has her change either mentally or physically, and because of everything else going on, it often takes a while to fully understand just how much she is different. The transformation by the end is astonishing compared with where she started.
Stone, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role in The Favourite, is in line for more awards for this part. She puts it all out there, literally and figuratively, with her performance, accomplishing a feat of which few others are capable. Dafoe is his usual steadying force, and Youssef, Ruffalo, and others have a ball playing along with all the craziness.
There is no way to watch Poor Things and not be impressed by the sheer guts of all involved to make such a film. And yet, for all of its outlandishness, it actually has a compelling story to tell, and the ideal actor to inhabit the lead role.
Poor Things opens in select theaters on December 15; it opens wide on December 22.