Silver Screen: The Lobster ***1/2
The Lobster might be one of the year’s best movies. It might also be one of the most disappointing, one of the funniest, one of the saddest, one of the most controlled, and one of the most elusive, too. It’s a tangle of contradictions, a brilliant bit of social commentary bent inward toward the personal, and a trainwreck of an allegory.
The Lobster is a lot of things, but it’s never boring.
Actually, it is boring for a stretch— but it’s never predictable or uninteresting.
A paunchy, schlubbed-out, never-better Colin Farrell stars as David, a widower in a dystopian world where coupling is deemed the ultimate social good. The vague, blithely fascistic state apparatus considers singles so potentially harmful to the system, they are sent to a kind of prison-cum-singles-resort where they have forty days to find a mate. At the end of forty days, those unable to pair up will be transformed into the animal of their choosing and sent out into the wild for a second chance to reproduce as a member of another species.
David has chosen to become a lobster because he’s always loved the beach and saltwater, and he’s a good swimmer.
“A lobster is an excellent choice,” the hotel manager/enforcer/matchmaker (Olivia Colman) tells him. Most people are uncreative and opt to be dogs. “That’s why there are so many dogs.”
Director Yorgos Lanthimos, with frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou, plays all of this perfectly straight. The film’s deadpan tone allows the absurdities to seep through in surprising places, so that one crackpot idea generates a laugh while another resonates with shocking force, revealing the truth of some real-life strangeness we’ve come to collectively accept. (Anyone who’s been subjected to adult dating will likely find The Lobster’s awkward customs eerily familiar, if only extrapolated to bizarre hyperbole.)
Lanthimos is an absolute master at rendering surreal scenarios plausible. Like Charlie Kaufman, or the excellent short story writer Kelly Link, he devises hauntingly recognizable alternate universes governed by outlandish rules he’s able to define gracefully and to tantalizing near-clarity, so few unanswered questions remain. Consider how quickly audiences came to accept Kaufman’s hole in the wall that leads into John Malkovich’s head, and you have some idea how insidiously the system at The Lobster’s hotel comes to seem, if not exactly equitable, at least viable.
During his stay, sad sack David connects with a pair of fellow hopeful singles, a prim geek (Ben Whishaw) and an overeager dork (John C. Reilly). Neither man is given a name, and each is classified by a defining trait— Whipsaw’s limp and Reilly’s lisp.
In the hotel, singles seek to find a match whose faults conveniently correspond to their own. A lack of available limpers puts Whipsaw’s prig in the awkward position of having to simulate nosebleeds to cozy up to his new crush (Jessica Barden), a cutie with a fragile septum. It’s details like this that provide odd little insights into the flaws in our own mating rituals.
Lanthimos isn’t afraid of heaping too much strangeness on the audience. He doesn’t coddle his audacious concept; he keeps loading it up to see if it will hold. Thus guests in the hotel can earn themselves extra days to find a better half by successfully hunting down Loners, singles who live unabashedly sexless, solitary lives in the woods. The hotel provides tranquilizer guns and a steady stream of darts, and busses the guests out into the woods for daily hunts.
To criticize Lanthimos for being too weird seems both counterintuitive and cowardly. His brave insistence on piling outlandishness atop more outlandishness is what makes the movie so dazzling... and yet, at some point, it does become too much. The allegory collapses during the back half of the movie when the focus shifts to the society of Loners living in the woods, led by former Bond girl Léa Seydoux and including a myopic love interest (Rachel Weisz) who narrates the story. The constructs of the Loner society seem arbitrary and cockamamie even within the funky diegesis of The Lobster. Here the movie stumbles from audacious inspiration to weirdness for weirdness’s sake. The same film that earlier left its singular world open to audience interpretation begins to bear the traces of Lanthimos’s emotional manipulation.
The frustrating, increasingly grating back half uses up the impressive amount of goodwill and faith Lanthimos has cultivated. Even its latter, exasperating turns, however, can’t quite doom what is a rare, truly unique movie. It’d be something like wishful thinking to say that Lanthimos stuck the landing, but his proprietary balance of pathos, silliness, cerebral satire, and horror is without equal. It was put to better if less intense effect in his stunning debut, Dogtooth, in which a cloistered, isolationist family dynamic collapses from within. Still, The Lobster is required viewing; even those who wind up justifiably hating it can’t deny they’ve seen something one of a kind, a movie they will never even once confuse for any other.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.