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Wild West Weekly Review: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo shine in the comedy 'Poor Things'

This week's Wild West Weekly Review will cover the film “Poor Things.” After his last hit film “The Favorite” (2017), Yorgos Lanthimos is back in the director's chair, this time with an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s book “Poor Things.”

The movie follows Bella Baxter, a Frankenstein-esque character with the mind of an infant, who discovers all the good, bad and ugly the world has to offer. I won’t go into the full details of the plot, but if you’ve ever seen any Frankenstein adaptation, it follows a very similar formula. 

However, Lanthimos takes the trope in a different direction, turning Bella from a bumbling toddler into a full-grown, intelligent woman. 

Her aging is rapid, which is a difficult character progression to act. But in a mere 140 minutes, Emma Stone shows she can act as multiple different personalities, whether it be a child or a full-grown woman.  I love Emma Stone. “La La Land” is one of my favorite films ever, and Stone’s performance is wonderful, alongside co-star Ryan Gosling (This is the second time I’ve mentioned Gosling in two different reviews, you can tell how much I love the guy.)

 The film plays alongside Bella’s perspective: The first 20 minutes are filmed in gorgeous black and white; the score has  a childlike stupidity to it, with twangs from a violin and sharp, loud piano notes with little rhythm. 

As Bella continues to grow and is  exposed to the world, her speech and mannerisms also change. She reads books on different philosophies and has a deep interest in the medical world (a result of being raised by a world-famous surgeon, played by Willem Dafoe). She wants to explore what the real world is. She wonders  why people are the way they are. The film grows  with Bella, as vibrant colors are suddenly thrown onto the screen as Bella continues to discover more of the world. The score becomes more complicated, with a beautiful string section replacing the simple notes. Even the camera changes significantly, using fisheye and wide-angle shots during Bella’s child phase, and moving into more tight shots and beautiful landscapes as the film progresses . 

Bella is taken on an adventure around Europe by the sleezy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn, played by Mark Ruffalo. Bella discovers a part of the human experience that many choose to ignore or simply suggest in other Frankenstein-like stories: sex. It’s funny that I mention sex three paragraphs into this review because it seems to take up at least a quarter of the movie. Often played to comedic effect, Bella experiences sex in many different forms with many different people. At one point, Bella begins to have sex for money, again changing her perspective on the act and furthering her perspective on the world. In a way, sex represents how Bella is feeling about the world she is slowly learning more about, from something fantastic and new to more of a daily task she must do to provide for herself, with no enjoyment involved, just as life often becomes.

Her first lover, Duncan, is one of my favorite characters I’ve see in a  movie. Ever. Ruffalo plays the character with fake confidence, or perhaps arrogance, that gets quickly washed away when Bella doesn’t conform to the standards Duncan has set upon her. He becomes a bitter man, obsessed with drinking and gambling, turning to violence when Bella disobeys his orders. He goes from an overconfident adventurer to a sad wisp of a man, with hilarious results. Ruffalo’s delivery hits every time, and the moments of disappointment and anger he displays on his face are just ripe for comedy. Whenever Ruffalo appears on screen, I can’t help but laugh. The character could have been bitter and violent in a way that the audience should fear, but instead, he comes off more like a buffoon. 

As Bella meets more people with different opinions and experiences of the world, and the more she continues to experience the world herself, the more composed and “normal” Bella becomes. And I think this is where Stone shines in her performance. She can go from a child to an educated woman with ease, she questions everything around her but never overplays the character. She begins to understand social norms and the way the world works but never gives up her curiosity that created the person she is. Such character development would take multiple seasons of a TV show to fully obtain, but Lanthamos and Stone can give Bella everything she needs without the tropes that most would be forced to use. 

The script has sharp dialogue that wastes no time saying what it wants to say, while still keeping a dry humor and playful wit. The dialogue is often laugh-out-loud funny, though I must credit the line delivery from the actors. Most of the performances in the film are perfect, there’s a reason Stone and Ruffalo are nominated  for Best Actress and Supporting Actor in this year’s Academy Awards, respectively.

The costume design is gorgeous and represents the changes Bella goes through. She first wears simple white gowns, but as the film goes on she wears more colorful dresses of blue and yellow, a sort of Victorian-style clothing with steampunk touches. And that goes for the set design of the whole film. Everything looks familiar, like much of the traditional European architecture we have seen for centuries, yet with some oddities that bring a whimsical feel. Steampunk influences are not extremely prevalent in the film, but they can most definitely be felt. 

Most of the film is quite enjoyable, though some of the sex scenes dragged on for too long, and once Bella becomes a fully-fledged woman the movie takes its time to wrap it up. I also didn’t love the ending, I wish it said something a bit more meaningful, but I suppose those are just nitpicks.

Overall, “Poor Things” is a film that is weird and strange, yet uses its strangeness to capture how odd life is. The shots and set designs are gorgeous, the acting is one of a kind and the script is biting. 2023 gave us many movies that will go into the cultural zeitgeist, and I believe “Poor Things” will fit right in with the more traditional films of the year, like Barbie and Oppenheimer. I give “Poor Things” 9/10. 

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