This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by editor Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Poor Things Is a Blast
If there’s one thing that a person who spends a lot of time watching or, in my case, covering pop culture loves, it’s complaining. Bitching is akin to breathing for us. The opportunity to whine uninterrupted for several minutes cures days of dehydration, clears up skin, and regulates digestion. Being given a public platform to do so? That’s like nature’s Ozempic.
That’s part of why I think entertainment media continues to go along with the outlandish expansion in scale, length, and attention paid to award season. Depending on when a film is released, an Oscar campaign can last for more than a year; a film that premieres at the annual Sundance Film Festival, the 2024 lineup for which was just announced, could spend 15 months on the trail until the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Each year, the expense and lavishness of FYC events, film festivals, and press coverage focused solely on promoting awards races over those months balloon faster my credit card bill when a pop diva announces a new Las Vegas residency.
Why do those of us in my field allow for this outrageous proliferation and, moreover, give it so much credence? My theory is: the opportunity to complain. We can complain about the ludicrousness of how overblown this all has become, sure. But more thrillingly, we can complain about the choices made. When there are more awards and awards conversations, we get to vent about who’s left out of them—and, sometimes more passionately, our annoyance over who is undeservedly included.
Personally, that’s taken a similar form over the years: an exasperation over the Academy’s predictable taste in the films and performances it nominates, one that doesn’t reflect my own (obviously) more sophisticated and adventurous preferences. So happy have I been to rely on that same old argument year after year, I’ve failed to notice something: award season, and even the Academy, has gotten admirably weird.
I had this realization this past week while revisiting some early awards-season staples, some of which are not only among my favorite films of the year, but also undeniably, gloriously odd.
This weekend, Poor Things opens in limited release. The film is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) and stars Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo, credentials that seem award-friendly on paper. Then you find out what it’s about. And then you watch it.
Stone plays Bella Baxter, a creation—literally—of a Victorian-era mad scientist (Willem Dafoe’s Dr. Godwin Baxter, aka “God”). Bella has the body of a woman Stone’s age, but the mind and emotional intelligence of a child—though her understanding of the world, her body, and her desires grow rapidly each day. That is to say, an insatiable sexual libido rises within her, which she unleashes into the world without having the conscience or shame of a fully grown person groomed by the prudent morals of polite society.
Poor Things is an exercise in discomfort and enlightenment, each working in tandem and against each other. Is it inspirational to see a woman explore her sexuality with no concern other than her fulfilling her own needs, whether that be pleasure or, later in the film, money and power? Or are we delighting in what could be argued as a form of statutory rape, clapping for Bella and even laughing at her erotic awakening, as this girl with a toddler-like brain and behavior has oh-so-much sex? That the film is both highly entertaining and incredibly shrewd further complicates these questions; sure, much of the film is very fun, but, for the sheer abundance of it, none of the sex is actually sexy.
So, yeah, this is a Weird Movie. In my opinion, a fantastic one… but weird. Certainly, it’s more out there than what we’d generally consider an “Oscar movie”: historical biopics, the inspirational story of overcoming trauma, or a major movie star wearing a wig and some prosthetics. That pundits have tipped Poor Things as a major contender for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor is quite surprising to me. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t be.
We may focus on our frustrations on how shoddy, feel-good dramas like Green Book are what appeal to voters because, again, we love to complain. But the Academy’s recent track record in the Best Picture category bucks against what we stereotypically consider an “Oscar film.” Everything Everywhere All at Once and Parasite are high-concept films with non-white perspectives that voters notoriously rebuff. The Shape of Water was about a woman who really wanted to fuck a sea monster. Moonlight is so small, tender, and specific (and, again, non-white!). Even CODA is, while crowd-pleasing, essentially a teen coming-of-age story—hardly indicative of the Boomer-courting stuffiness we associate with these award shows.
This season, it’s not just Poor Things that’s subverting expectations. Todd Haynes’ May December is loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal, where a 36-year-old teacher had sex with and eventually married her seventh-grade student—and it’s competing at the Golden Globes as a comedy! Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is a gay romantic drama by way of ghost story that’s been sweeping nominations with indie awards organizations, to the point that it’s being tipped to break into the Oscar race. Reviews for Blitz Bazawule’s The Color Purple aren’t out yet, but there are big swings in that movie. Heck, Barbie is a major contender.
This is a really sobering moment for me. It may be time to stop complaining.