'Poor Things' review: Emma Stone stars in an unhinged yet uplifting film Emma Stone stars as an adult woman with the anarchic spirit of a very young child in a strangely touching film that's filled with transgressive sex, sadistic power games and grisly violence.

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Movie Reviews

Unhinged yet uplifting, 'Poor Things' is an un-family-friendly 'Barbie'

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The top prize winner at this year's Venice International Film Festival was the dark comedy "Poor Things," starring Emma Stone as a Victorian woman who embarks on a strange personal journey. It's Stone's latest collaboration with the director Yorgos Lanthimos after their Oscar-winning period drama "The Favourite." "Poor Things" also stars Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe. The movie is now in theaters, and our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Poor Things" is a little "Alice In Wonderland," a little "Wizard Of Oz," a little "Marquis De Sade," and a whole lot of "Frankenstein." It also has a lot in common with some of Yorgos Lanthimos' earlier films, like "The Favourite" and "Dogtooth" - transgressive sex, sadistic power games and grisly violence. But if the movie is brutal, it's also extravagantly beautiful, extremely funny and, by the end, strangely touching, even uplifting. This may be Lanthimos' most unhinged movie, but it also has a joyous exuberance that I haven't felt in much of his earlier work.

The story, loosely adapted from a 1992 novel by the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, follows a most unusual character named Bella Baxter, played by a mesmerizing Emma Stone. When we first meet Bella in 19th-century London, she looks like an adult woman but has the awkward gait, unformed speech and anarchic spirit of a very young child. As we learn early on, she's the product of a back-from-the-dead mad science experiment in which she was implanted with the brain of the child she was carrying at the time of her death. Bella, in other words, is both her mother and her daughter and in a weird way, neither. Under the watchful eye of her creator - that's Willem Dafoe as the sweetly deranged scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter - Bella develops rapidly. Before long, she's walking and talking more or less like a grown up, though her inventively tortured speech patterns remain one of the best running gags in Tony McNamara's script.

Inevitably, Bella discovers sex, first exploring her own adult body with childlike curiosity and then having a passionate fling with a rogue named Duncan Wedderburn, a hilariously over-the-top Mark Ruffalo. When they have sex for the first time, the movie, which until now has mostly been filmed in black and white, explodes into wild, rapturous color. Like an especially bawdy riff on Voltaire's "Candide," "Poor Things" becomes the story of Bella's sexual odyssey. Ever since the movie's Venice Film Festival premiere, much of the reaction has focused on its many frenzied sex scenes, in which the bodies of Stone and Ruffalo, among others, are on abundant display.

But the movie is after something more than mere titillation. Much of the time, it emphasizes the absurdity rather than the ecstasy of sex. Before long, Bella grows bored and disillusioned. She learns that men are mostly horrible and that the world is full of suffering and poverty. Soon, she begins making new friends, reading Emerson and nourishing her mind. At one point, while they're on a European boat cruise, Duncan becomes jealous, accusing Bella of spending too much time with two other travelers who are having an engrossing intellectual debate. Bella responds, as she often does, by referring to herself in the third person.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POOR THINGS")

EMMA STONE: (As Bella Baxter) These two are fighting, and ideas are banging around in Bella's head and heart like lights in a storm.

MARK RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) Oh. You're always reading now, Bella. You're losing some of your adorable way of speaking.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) I'm a changingable feast, as are all of we, apparently, according to Emerson, disagreed with by Harry.

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) Come, come. Just come.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) You're in my sun.

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) What?

CHANG: If Bella's baroque dialogue makes poor things a lot of fun to listen to, it's also gorgeous to look at. Lanthimos has never been afraid of anachronism, and here he embraces it head on. His production designers, Shona Heath and James Price, have dreamed up a futuristic, candy-colored vision of the 19th century, where people movers soar over city streets and chimneys belch green smoke into a dark purple sky. This almost steampunk fantasy version of Victoriana, often shot with fisheye lenses by the gifted cinematographer Robbie Ryan, suggests just how radically strange the world must look to Bella's eyes. And Jerksin Fendrix's dissonant, unruly score feels like something piped in directly from Bella's subconscious.

Some admirers of "Poor Things" have argued that it's a feminist work in which Bella's erotic awakening becomes the key to her liberation. The movie's detractors have dismissed it as just a superficially empowering girlboss narrative. I'm hardly the only one to have noticed that it's basically the unfamily-friendly version of Barbie, in which a woman's childlike naivete becomes a surprisingly effective weapon against the patriarchy. I guess that makes Ruffalo's greasy-haired Duncan a ken, though you might say the same for the men played by Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott, all of whom try in their own ways to manipulate Bella's destiny.

But Bella won't be controlled, and she's much too brilliant a character to be reduced to a symbol or archetype. Stone gives a great, audacious performance. Her Bella can be ignorant, selfish, impulsive and cruel but also fiercely intelligent, witty, thoughtful and kind. Lanthimos has seldom expressed much affection for his characters, but he clearly loves this one to pieces. He's made a movie that, even at its most outlandish, has its heart in the right place, even if its brains are not.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Poor Things," starring Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo. On Monday's show, we speak with Colman Domingo, a star of two of the big holiday film releases. In the biopic "Rustin," he plays Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader most responsible for organizing the 1963 March on Washington, who was forced into the background because he was gay. In "The Color Purple," he plays Mister, the abusive husband. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL CHAMBERS' "JULIE ANN")

DAVIES: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL CHAMBERS' "JULIE ANN")

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