Lobster, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/07/16 15:07:33

"A fitfully wonderful anti-date movie."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Early on in "The Lobster", it looks like filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is going to present a fairly unconventional message, that despite it seeming like the moral of nearly every story, maybe love is not the only way to feel truly fulfilled. It's a subversive-enough idea for a movie that it's perhaps the slightest bit disappointing when Lanthimos has a more conventional worldview, despite his intriguingly eccentric approach to the subject.

In his film, David (Colin Farrell) was just left by his wife after eleven years, and as is the case when that happens, he is given forty-five days to get back into a relationship or else be turned into an animal. So he goes to The Hotel, as one does. He befriends two other new arrivals, one with a lisp (John C. Reilly) and one with a limp (Ben Whishaw); they meet a number of women - one chatty and fond of butter biscuits (Ashley Jensen), one seemingly heartless (Angeliki Papoulia), one prone to nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), and another her best friend (Emma O'Shea). They can extend their time a bit by catching and tranquilizing the Loners in the woods, who may have a fearsome leader (Léa Seydoux) but also count among their number a woman (Rachel Weisz) who may be a fine match for David even beyond their shared nearsightedness.

Lanthimos and regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou are often fairly obvious in their satire, but that's not a mark against it. There are a couple of bits toward the start where the hotel staff do skits meant to convince their guests that being in a relationship is all that stands between a person and certain death, and that being alone is equivalent to trying to go through life with one hand tied behind one's back. It's a deadpan look at how society tells people that they may as well not be human if they're not in a very specifically defined sort of relationship achieved a certain way, and how the spontaneity has been pulled out of it. It's pointedly absurd but has some fantastic small moments.

The second half of the movie, spent among the Loners, lacks this sharpness. What, precisely, is this group of people living out in the woods with their own rigidly anti-romantic rule set supposed to be representing? Though there are certainly some good nuggets to be found in this section - even the most blissfully single must, on a metaphorical level, commit to digging their own graves - the best satirical material here comes when it reconnects to The Hotel or the characters make excursions into The City. Much of the rest of the time, Lanthimos and Filippou are allowing the rules they set up for their fantasy world to dictate where the story goes rather than building their fantasy world around the story they want to tell. That's especially egregious considering that the deliberately stilted dialogue doesn't work nearly as well removed from the nervous desperation of the Hotel (this goes double for the excessive, often redundant narration Rachel Weisz is saddled with).

It's a testament to how great the cast is that they're able to overcome a filmmaker who often seems determined to make their job difficult by not giving them memorable lines or much chance to fully step away from nervous awkwardness. Colin Farrell, despite being in nearly every scene, only gets a couple where he gets to come out from behind a mostly blank mask and connect directly with the audience. That's not to diminish the job he does - Farrell and Weisz manage something terrific as two people falling in love even though they can't comprehend or articulate their fondness for each other beyond surface similarities. Ben Whishaw does the best job of projecting the genuine ache and need his character feels despite his words always being flat and declarative, although the cast is stacked enough with fine performers who make this material work: John C. Reilly is great at this sort of material, Olivia Colman handles the deadpan pronouncements of the Hotel Manager with wit, Jessica Barden makes the girl with nosebleeds exceptionally sweet... There are a lot of pieces that could be a drag on the film but instead tie it together.

I wonder if this being Lanthimos's first English-language feature holds him back; so much of it is built on dialogue being precisely off that he might need a better baseline (consider "The Invention of Lying", where Ricky Gervais knew how to make his skewed conversations nevertheless sound like things people might say). His recent Greek films have been built around straight-facedly pushing an idea to its breaking point, and "The Lobster" is certainly that sort of film: A core of brilliant satire often needing everything Lanthimos and his cast can give it.

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