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Poor Things review: Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo lead a demented comedy of self-creation and degradation

Poor Things review: Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo lead a demented comedy of self-creation and degradation

Yorgos Lanthimos' latest feature is gloriously, dementedly alive!

Borrowing from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara imagine a jewel-toned steampunk world that blends the science fiction of the Shelley novel with a 19th-century bildungsroman. Only this time it's a woman who's coming of age.

Dredged from the river after committing suicide, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) is reanimated, possessing the body of a woman and the brain of a baby. Protected by her creator, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), Bella is infantile yet hungry to learn more about the world outside (fun fact: Godwin was Mary Shelley's maiden name). When Godwin hires Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) to write a marriage contract for Bella and Godwin's student, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), she runs away with Duncan, embarking on an eye-opening journey of awakening of epically feminist proportions.

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in 'Poor Things'

The film gets off to a shaky start, with a dragging pace and an overacted performance from Stone in Bella's most childlike sequences, but once Ruffalo shows up and the film switches from black-and-white to color, we're off to the races.

It's fitting that Lanthimos' most daring, inventive film to date is about a mad scientist's creation since one could argue that he is a mad scientist of cinema. Poor Things is no exception, with its jocund embrace of bodily fluids, sexual congress, and general visual exuberance. There's a joyful, unhinged nature to the proceedings, reveling in everything from another wild dance sequence that rivals the one in The Favourite to the myriad scenes of vigorous, pleasurable sex (or as Bella calls it, "fierce jumping").

Willem Dafoe in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
Willem Dafoe in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures Willem Dafoe in 'Poor Things'

Stone loses herself in Bella, a Victorian Wednesday Addams hungry for everything in her path whether it be men, knowledge, or self-possession. Bella is a voracious creature, her continual evolution never dulling her lack of propriety and joie de vivre. The works of Thoreau are as pleasing to her as cunnilingus, and she pursues both with equal unapologetic demand. Lanthimos and McNamara lean heavily into privileging female desire and the ways in which pleasure should be equally a woman's domain.

Poor Things is unquestionably the performance of Stone's career, her wide eyes employed to perfection in Bella's own wonder at the world. Holly Waddington's costumes — a Vivienne Westwood-esque blending of Victorian, punk, and mod styling — aid in her transformation. Stone is a gifted comedic actress and she is an ideal match for Lanthimos' tone, a strange mix of black comedy, farce, and social commentary.

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'

Both Bella and Stone pursue a fearless act of self-creation here. Stone portrays Bella's vicissitudes with a fantastical fluidity, a complete lack of vanity, and a deadpan, outrageous humor. Who else could deliver a line like, "I must go punch that baby," with such relish? Because Bella is a "monster," a scientist's creation, she is allowed to be utterly herself in every moment, and it's divinely refreshing to see a woman of such immense appetites on screen. Particularly because Stone savors every delectable bite, making Bella a woman entirely ruled by her id.

If Bella is all id, then Duncan is pure ego. Ruffalo appears to be having the time of his life, chewing the scenery with a manic glee. He's built a career playing solid, decent men, and what fun it is to watch him play a reprobate cad whose chief concern is who he might be sticking his dick into next. Ruffalo plays Duncan as a puffed-up vainglorious peacock, a man whose ego is the size of an entire continent. Ruffalo adopts a European accent that feels less specific to any one region than exceptional in its deliberate pretentiousness. There are few cinematic experiences this year as enjoyable as watching Bella turn him into a blithering wreck of a man. In his mouth, the c-word becomes a concerto, and it's a wonder to behold. Meanwhile, Youssef is a fabulous foil to Ruffalo, kind, gentle, and calm in all the ways Ruffalo is wild.

Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'
Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'

Searchlight Pictures Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'

Poor Things bursts with an absurd perversity that is riotously fun to watch. But only because such provocation is not merely for the sake of itself. The movie also possesses a deep heart (this is Lanthimos' most earnest and romantic picture to date), driven by its love for its unique central character and her quest to live life precisely as she sees fit, expectations and manners be damned. The world here is not the most traditional of Victorian settings, but one more fantastical with pink and purple cotton candy skies and looming, lavish sets that establish the tone of the larger-than-life story. There are times when the more formal filmmaking choices, such as a frequent use of fisheye lenses, feel like gilding the lily, but that's a minor quibble.

For all its hilarity, explicit sex — which, for the record, is a) extremely sexy, b) earned, and c) hysterically funny — and foul-mouthed dialogue, Poor Things is a romance about a woman learning to fall in love with herself, no matter what others think she should be. For that reason alone, Bella is a cinematic heroine for the ages and Poor Things is a unique piece of artistry. With Yorgos Lanthimos behind the camera, it's not hard to find it fascinating to be alive. Grade: A-

Poor Things opens in theaters Dec. 8.

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