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Poor Things

Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Produced by Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Emma Stone, and Giorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay by Tony McNamara Based on the novel by Alasdair Gray
With: Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Jack Barton, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, Margaret Qualley, Kathryn Hunter, and Mark Ruffalo
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Editing: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Music: Jerskin Fendrix
Runtime: 141 min
Release Date: 08 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.66 : 1
Color: Color

Director Yorgos Lanthimos, screenwriter Tony McNamara, and star Emma Stone reunite most of the team behind their glorious Oscar-winning prior collaboration, The Favourite, for this adaption of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel about a young Victorian era woman who, following her suicide, is resurrected by an unorthodox surgeon who swaps her brain for that of her unborn child. Emma Stone delivers a supremely confident tour de force performance as Bella Baxter, whom we first meet when she's at the developmental stage of a toddler. Initially sheltered and sequestered in the home of her mad-scientist creator, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe under heavy prosthetics), Bella soon leaves the nest to travel the world on a voyage of self-discovery and intellectual, political, and sexual liberation.

Comparisons to the early work of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam will be unavoidable due to the heavily stylized approach Lanthimos and his team of visualists take in bringing this story to life. But Poor Things has none of the former's stunted adolescent whimsy nor the latter's aggressive old-man antipathy. Quite the contrary, this is a mature, feminist narrative that never forgets it's a comical fantasy when making its sharp points. Unlike the same year's Barbie, Poor Things is able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

The picture starts out as if Jeunet & Caro remade The Bride, the 1985 movie in which Sting's Baron Frankenstein plays Pygmalion to the beautiful young woman he "sewed together out of corpses and brought to life by means of an electric charge." But while Jennifer Beal's Eva in The Bride can only attempt to break free from the confines of British patriarchal society, Stone's Bella reduces it to rubble. This is a hilarious, complex, fully committed performance from the 35-year-old former teen star who has rapidly become one of the greatest actors and movie stars of the millennium. Stone is doing some Nicholas-Cage-level thespianism here, except that she's able to give both the manic, over-the-top surface and the subtle internal dramatics within the same movie.

Films done in as arch a style as this one usually run out of gas or wear out their welcome by the halfway point—especially if they clock in at more than two hours and twenty minutes! But while the outward visual look of Poor Things may be what we first notice, this is a substance-over-style picture. Stone's character drives this movie, and since Bella doesn't fully mature until well past the midway point, the second half possesses many of the film's best moments. Watching the trailer, you might think this a gender-swapped version of Edward Scissorhands, but the picture is far more akin to Midnight Cowboy, at least in terms of its themes and the strengths of its performances.

Speaking of the performances, it would be a sin not to mention Mark Ruffalo's hilarious turn as the debauched ladies-man lawyer who initially sweeps Bella away for his own seedy purposes but is quickly reduced to a sniveling shell of shattered male ego. He and Stone give the two best performances I've seen so far this year. Seeing actors go this broad without overtly playing to the picture's extratextural aspects is incredibly refreshing. I've sat through so many recent movies that feel like their ultimate goal is to become social media memes, so watching actors be this exaggerated solely in service of a narrative is incredibly refreshing.

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Emma Stone gives a supremely confident tour de force performance as the creation of a mad scientist who embarks on a voyage of self-discovery and intellectual, political, and sexual liberation in Yorgos Lanthimos's deceptive substance-over-style fable.