Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Review: "The Lobster" is the Best Romantic Comedy in Years

Scene from The Lobster
There are few movie genres who are in as much of an existential crisis as the romantic comedy. With limited exceptions, the story rarely is capable of escaping the A to B "boy meets girl" logic that services as the groundwork for the best films going back to the screwball comedies of the 1930's. It could be that love is such an inherent thing that nothing has really changed, possibly in centuries. Then there are films like Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos' English language debut The Lobster, which vitalizes the romantic comedy not by providing a traditional love story, but one that creatively and perversely looks into the very idea of what love is. With a strong cast and the most attention-grabbing plot of 2016, The Lobster is both a phenomenal achievement in story telling as well as the best romantic comedy of the year - possibly even the decade.

It is something that most people have likely been bombarded with for most of their lives, especially if you come from America. There's a pressure to succeed and live an idealized lifestyle that can be summarized by the cliche 50's household dynamic: a married couple who lives in the suburbs with their children, and a nice job. It's a formula that's hard to escape when watching our introduction to the rules of The Lobster. The only difference is that this is from the mind of Lanthimos, who's best known for his Oscar-nominated film Dogtooth - which saw a family of shut-in children explore every facet of the human condition in unnerving ways. Love isn't easy enough. There's pressure to find your soulmate in 45 days or turn into an animal of preference. The way that the people in The Lobster fall in love may sound like one of those speed dating programs, but it comes with a variety of restrictions, all of which are sprinkled with sludge black humor that overwhelms conventions and goes straight for personal impulse. There are jokes surrounding character deaths that eventually dwindle to personal frustrations regarding others' inconvenience. It only becomes stranger as the "loners" try to evade the punishments.

The film is lead by David (Colin Farrell), whose wife dies and he is forced to attend the program. With an eclectic group of characters and his brother that is now a dog, he navigates the realm, occasionally diving into madness. Unlike most people, there's a certain disaffection that he has for everyone, even his best of friends (John C. Reilly) seem to help him just pass the time as he counts down hours and deals with a neurotic routine that makes him uncomfortable. With the inability to act on sexual tensions, he becomes a mess as he watches the world around him find happiness. With an accompany narrator (Rachel Weisz) that turns out to also be short sighted, he finally finds love - but not where one would necessarily look. With a band of outsiders (lead by Lea Seydoux), the film becomes more interesting the further along things go, with the unbearable strings playing as if its David's dying heart, the film balances the comedy of desperation with an overlying and bleak tone that sets it up as one of the most creatively written and slight sci-fi films since Her in 2013.

Whether or not it is the basis, the film feels like Lanthimos' commentary on America's thirst for acceptance and love. The structure very much plays out in the courtship model that promises eternal happiness, or at least life in a comfortable state. The idea of being alone is treated as a crime. There's pressure to meet the standards of the community, which becomes increasingly ridiculous. The people who become animals - for example: peacocks, large pigs - are forced to wander around the forest, standing out like sore thumbs and never being able to properly adapt to the environment. It is only when breaking from the code of conduct that Lanthimos manages to find the sublime territory. With his slow pacing and deadpan wit, the film never quite embraces its comedy but instead allows the viewer to find it once they feel comfortable. It may not have the broad slapstick that is often associated with romantic comedy, but there's plenty to be found in the gallows humor that creates new and intriguing character struggles.

What should be noted is that Farrell and Weisz give great performances that evolve from the predictable couple into something that is far more rewarding. Farrell's disaffected performance makes for arguably his best in years. His conviction as he discovers love drives the story into its own familiar passion. Audiences will notice this among the doomed fate that inevitably leads to a tragic twist. However, there's beauty to be found even in the final shot that hangs ambiguously over the previous two hours. It's a quiet moment that asks how far one is willing to go for love, even if it includes terrible pain. It is sudden, but one that turns the question of love from the film to the audience, as if putting them into the hotel that most of this film resides in. What would you do to find love? Would you just turn into a lobster, or would you sacrifice some things if it meant eternal happiness? Yes, the ending is technically bleak for a romantic comedy - but it also has a certain sweetness amid the discomfort. It's why The Lobster will continue to resonate and be dissected for decades to come.

In general, this is par for the course with Lanthimos' other work and may be his best since Dogtooth. If nothing else, his transition to the English language is as successful as Park Chanwook's work three years prior with Stoker. Despite the language barrier, he manages to convey the complexities of romance in ways that are at times damning of societal norms as well as uncovering something more human. It is a plot that may sound like a gimmick, but the director's dedication to intricately crafting it makes it something deeper. It isn't about what animal you would be. This isn't The Island of Dr. Morreau. This is the real world, and it is up to us to figure out how much we'll let society dictate our love lives. If not, we're doomed to fall victim to the system. It's a romantic comedy with dire circumstances, thus making it far more adult and pure than most love stories of the past few years.

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