By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: The Lobster

It’s not that The Lobster is particularly difficult to crack—it’s that there just may not be enough meat inside once you do.

The Lobster_0

It’s the kind of film that’s expected from Yorgos Lanthimos, the cinematically unkind filmmaker who brought us 2009’s Dogtooth. Lanthimos’ tendencies are to subvert the norm and to make you squirm, and in his Competition debut he succeeds in a number of ways. So if that’s what The Lobster is pinching at, then so be it—but be wary if this film is touted as something deeper than the shallow bisque it stews in.

The premise—hell, the logline—is enough to pack the Lumière to the gills at 8:30 AM, because The Lobster is a real beast of an idea: in an alternate dystopia, men and women who remain Alone (capital A) are eventually sentenced to be transformed into an animal, mostly of their choosing, if they can’t find a mate in time. We’re centered around David (Colin Farrell), a man with a flat personality who joins a “hotel” complete with seminars and junior high dances to encourage romantic encounters—or fake them entirely.

Ever wondered why there’s so many dogs running around? The film answers that by suggesting it’s the default (read: basic) option for people to give up and become pooches, which is one of the few really great ideas that the film teases out over two hours. Except those ideas become played out by around the 45-minute mark, which is another way of saying for a while there, I was having a great time watching a normcore/dad-mode Colin Farrell play romantic Hunger Games with women he has zero or sub-zero chemistry with. 45 days to find a mate? What do you do? What do you do on your last day as a human? Don’t spend it copulating or running around the field—those are things you can do as an animal. Spend it reading high literature, or in one case, spend it watching Stand By Me, an “excellent film.”

There are some laughs here, and definitely a couple grins. Like when asked what animal he would want to become if he fails to find a partner, David replies with the title of the film, and moments like these the script is winking at its most apparent. But the crustacean as a visual image is a motif that’s expressed a little too enthusiastically for it to be nuanced or subtle, and when the film leaves its shell and enters a third act where we meet a rebellious Léa Seydoux and our mysterious narrator (Rachel Weisz), the off-putting brine comes to a boil. The film mostly falls apart.

In fact, it’s the austerity and punishment of Lanthimos’ black comedy or dark drama that is too cute and bizarre for its own good. It’s entertaining and brow-raising for about the same amount of time as the premise holds. The result: an exercise in alienating an audience, with an ending that is eager to isolate the squeamish in the crowd and laugh at them. Mission accomplished.

I reject the idea that the last thirty minutes are too strange for me, or that I missed the point. (Realistically, I don’t think anything is stranger than the film’s initial hook.) It’s that it becomes visually dull and excruciatingly awkward in a way that isn’t as clever as Lanthimos thinks it is. I read not a week ago that many chefs believe stunning or attempting to stab a lobster while you’re cooking it will release chemicals that ruins the taste. Maybe, in the writing phase somewhere, something similar happened: this auteur had a live one, but in wrestling it to the screen, the meat somehow became spoiled.

 

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“I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover something in them – when I can get something out of them that I can share with people. The week I quit, I hadn’t planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this. One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, Scenes From a Mall. I couldn’t write another bad review of Bette Midler. I thought she was so brilliant, and when I saw her in that terrible production of ‘Gypsy’ on television, my heart sank. And I’d already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when you have to pan the same people a few years later, it tears your spirits apart.”
~ Pauline Kael On Quitting

“My father was a Jerome. My daughter’s middle name is Jerome. But my most vexing and vexed relationship with a Jerome was with Jerome Levitch, the subject of my first book under his stage and screen name, Jerry Lewis.

I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

~ Biographer Shawn Levy on Jerry Lewis on Facebook