Movie review: Emma Stone courts Oscar again in 'Poor Things'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Nov 21 2023 06:24 PM

Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'
Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'

A young woman killed herself by jumping into the river. She was successfully brought back to life by scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), by incorporating the brain of an unborn infant into her skull and renamed as Bella (Emma Stone). Oozing with childlike curiosity, Bella went on a journey of self-discovery, at first with Baxter's assistant Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), and later with globe-trotting lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). 

This bizarre, dark comedy film was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, adapted by Tony McNamara from the 1992 novel of the same title written by Alasdair Gray. It employed the sci-fi set-up used in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" of a mad scientist bringing a dead body back to life. However, unlike "Frankenstein," Bella was not a frightful monster here, and she was fond of Dr. Baxter, whom she called "God" for short. 

As this film tackled Bella's sexual explorations, this role required Emma Stone to go beyond her usual sweet roles. Here she had to play a young woman with an infant's brain, so she was filled with the spirit of childlike wonder and a frank tongue not yet controlled by societal conventions. When Bella discovered the joys of sex, she could not get enough of it, which meant that Stone had scenes where she was in various degrees of undress.

Willem Dafoe, with his Dr. Baxter's face with scars and deep creases, actually looked more like a monster, but with a positive heart. Energetic Mark Ruffalo stole all his scenes as the bad influence in Bella's innocent second life. That ballroom dance duet of Wedderburn and Bella was classic grand old Hollywood, elegantly and delightfully hilarious. 

Youssef made for a clueless McCandles, while look-alike Christopher Abbott was a despicable Alfie Blessington.

Because of its out-of-this-world topic and out-of-the-box execution, this film looked and felt too weird, likely not to fit everyone's taste or sense of humor. However, there would be no arguments for the merits of its technical aspects -- lively shifting cinematography by Robbie Ryan, 19th century steam-punk production design by Shona Heath and the Victorian haute couture by costume designer Holly Waddington. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."