September 07, 2016

It may be smart satire, but 'The Lobster' left me feeling cold.

The Lobster imagines a world in which single people are sent to a posh hotel in the English countryside where they must pair up or be turned into animals. Once guests arrive at the hotel, they have 45 days to find a mate. But they can earn extra days, by hunting each other—with “tranquilizers”—in the woods at night: the more people you shoot, the more days you accumulate. The hotel has strict rules discouraging anything done solo, and they even stage dull little one-act plays, showing people the danger and, nay, the immorality of being alone. The hotel’s manager is a severe and matter-of-fact schoolmistress of a woman (Olivia Colman); in the evenings, she and her husband entertain the guests with songs, which are sung as monotone as their everyday speech. The movie follows one guest named David (Colin Farrell), recently widowed, who eventually flees the hotel and his society’s totalitarian dating policy, only to fall in love with a fellow rebel (Rachel Weisz), who lives in the woods with a secret group of like-minded marriage holdouts. 

The Lobster is a canny satire of our militantly pro-marriage culture, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (who co-wrote the script, with Efthymis Filippou). His conception is like something out of The Hunger Games, if it had been written for adults: a dystopian world that has been fragmented into little groups of underlings struggling for power. The hotel staff, apparently, have more power than the residents (at least those who don’t end up with a significant other by the end of their stay); and there’s a grim awareness that some kind of death (even if being transformed into an animal isn't really dying) awaits, like a vague specter. Talk about pressure to mate for life. 

Visually speaking, The Lobster reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s films, perhaps because Kubrick was always trying to be English, and since this film takes place mostly in an expansive, antiseptic-looking English hotel, The Lobster feels like The Shining during tourist season: the Overlook Hotel is open for business, and OK Cupid is in charge of recreation. And, like every Stanley Kubrick movie, The Lobster is somber and arty and more than a little pretentious. But unlike the best of Kubrick’s films, The Lobster doesn’t grab hold of you. It’s so deadpan and uninvolved that it doesn’t even sell itself. 

Call this artistic integrity on the part of the director. Apparently, the only way Yorgos Lanthimos knows how to make his point—that marriage is a hegemonic institution— is to create a world as drab and tedious as the deadest mausoleum-marriage. Everyone speaks in monotonous, emotionless tones like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and likewise the dialogue is mindlessly ordinary and stiff: “I got you a rabbit; thank you very much; I like rabbits; I knew you did; that’s why I got you one.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty close to reality.) The whole world of this movie has been lacquered in the beige of banality in order to advance The Lobster’s thesis. And I agree with the argument, but this brand of cultivated, polished satire leaves me enervated and completely checked out. 

It’s particularly frustrating to see good performers reduced to merely reciting their lines. At his best, Colin Farrell can be exuberantly pathetic or commanding, as in his performances in In Bruges and the Fright Night remake (where he played the sexy vampire-next-door). But here, both he and Rachel Weisz (also capable of real feeling and empathy) are hollowed out for the joke. The Lobster is a hipster’s version of satire: it lacks vivacity and madness, two things you need for a movie like this. And while its premise may be daring, the movie isn't. When John Waters was making all of his truly insane movies against the establishment, he at least was having a good time, even if those movies didn’t always hang together. (And of course, LSD was involved.) The Lobster hangs together too perfectly, like a stilted photograph of a dreary London factory, all its satire meticulously thought out and orchestrated. I felt nothing. 

With John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Jessica Barden, and Ashley Jensen. 

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