POOR THINGS Review: Sugar, violence, and feminist 'Frankenstein'

by Charles Gerian

“I have adventured the world and found nothing but sugar and violence. It is most charming.”

Yorgos Lanthimos’ POOR THINGS amassed a staggering 11 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress and expanded into several thousand theaters across the nation this past weekend, including Ark City’s Cowley Cinema 8 and Stillwater’s AMC.

This visually extravagant adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 dark comedy novel is a feminist-infused take on the “Frankenstein” story that ultimately tells us that there is beauty and darkness in life, and the key to happiness is not letting either extremes shape who you are.

In Victorian London, a pregnant woman (Emma Stone) commits suicide by casting herself off a bridge and washing up at the feet of eccentric surgeon-scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Baxter takes the brain of the unborn child and implants it in the woman’s body, essentially saving both lives by combining them.

Now named Bella Baxter, the childlike woman lives a sheltered life with her father-creator until she meets one of his medical students Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) who instantly falls in love and wishes to marry her.

Attempting to speed along the marriage, Dr. Baxter enlists the help of a scandalous and sex-addicted lawyer named Duncan Wedderburn (a hilarious Mark Ruffalo) who woos her and steals her away to see the world for the first time.

Bella discovers her womanhood on her globe-trotting journey of sexual discovery along with first-hand exposure to the good and evil in the world in this uproarious comedy that is as unexpectedly sweet as it is aesthetically enticing.

Director Lanthimos is well-known for his mean-spirit musings on humankind with such films as THE LOBSTER and Oscar-darling THE FAVOURITE, but POOR THINGS is, much like the infantile Bella we meet, in love with the world.

The scenes at the beginning of the film are in black and white, showing how sheltered Bella is under Dr. Baxter’s heavy protection. Once out of his steampunk mansion and embarking to see the world with her new beau Duncan, the film assaults us with colors and extravagance.

POOR THINGS, like its lead, gorges itself on sweets and life. Their first stop is Lisbon, where Duncan and Bella do nothing but have sex and go to dances. Duncan, a legitimate career-best from Ruffalo, at first tells Bella that she shouldn’t be fooled by the illusion of “boring” and posh high society.

He wants her to be a hedonistic playboy, like him. To screw, eat, drink, and be merry…but only screwing, eating, drinking, and merry as he allows. She soon becomes too much for him to handle, and he effectively kidnaps her, putting them on a cruise ship, and removing her from the world at large to control her.

Bella accuses Duncan of becoming “weepy and sweary” at her, and soon she makes friends with a similarly strange couple in the opposites of the pessimistic Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael) and the sweet, sheltered, and saccharine Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine) who introduce her to books, philosophy, and their ever-at-odds view of the world.

Through their cruise, Duncan becomes more distraught as Bella’s world-view continues to expand to see the good and evil in humanity until they arrive in Paris where, broke, Bella takes a new job as a brothel’s prize prostitute. Duncan, enraged, leaves her.

Bella’s world expands ever still here, where through her sex work she becomes close to her fellow workers and the brothel’s madam until a letter informs her that Dr. Baxter’s health is declining. Now a “woman”, Bella returns to London to confront her sheltering father and to look into her own past as well.

Emma Stone’s Bella is the beating and bloody heart of POOR THINGS, and without her, this would simply be a corpse jolted with electricity and left to spasm on the table. She is bolstered here by Ruffalo’s Duncan who is so genuinely funny that audiences are reminded of how charismatic and sensational an asset he can be in a time when he didn’t sleepwalk through a decade of Marvel movies as The Hulk.

POOR THINGS holds a mirror up to our society and the ongoing battle of how men seek to control women and keep their inhibitions under their thumbs, bringing to mind the (nasty) expression a “good key unlocks many doors, but a bad lock is opened by many keys”.

Duncan is enticed by Bella’s desire to discover her sexuality and embrace her sex drive, but becomes revolted and angered as she experiments with other partners (despite their initial care-free casual relationship). When Bella returns to London and sees her betrothed again, Max, is delighted to hear about her discovering herself, only saying the price she charged as a prostitute was far too low for a woman of her beauty.

Compare that, too, to the particularly grim final reveal about why the woman Bella used to be committed suicide in the first place.

POOR THINGS, interestingly, is a perfect companion piece to 2023’s BARBIE.

The film posits to us, the audience, that it’s never too late to discover yourself. To live. To embrace the sugar and violence in life, but not to consume so much of either that you vomit it all up or, in the latter’s case, become jaded and cruel in your observation. Staring too long into the abyss, and all that.

The film is now playing in Stillwater and Ark City.