Naomi Watts has the rare distinction of, within two weeks of each other, starring in the worst film of the summer and the worst new TV show of the summer. (Well, if not the worst, certainly the most pointless TV show.)
Naomi Watts is one of our greatest actresses, a two-time Oscar nominee with a slew of standout roles (Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams, The Impossible, Eastern Promises), who has delivered one of the greatest blockbuster film performances in the last decade with King Kong and, reuniting with frequent collaborator David Lynch, is delivering a fun, if small, performance in the new Twin Peaks revival.
She’s also routinely saddled with, as evidenced so painfully in the one-two turd punch of The Book of Henry and Gypsy, the infuriating distinction of “does the best with subpar material!”
The Book of Henry, which was released in theaters on June 16, is one of those films so universally reviled that coverage of it trades in the kind of blood sport wherein critics gleefully compete to pen the most inventive and entertaining pan.
The film’s plot is a doozy. (Light spoilers here for a film that, let’s be honest, you’re never going to see.)
Watts plays Susan, mother to Henry, a boy-genius with a crush on the ballet dancer, Christina, who lives across the street and who is also being abused by her stepfather, which Henry witnesses. Henry attempts to help Christina, but his efforts are interrupted by the brain tumor that kills him. He has, however, left behind the titular book, which contains—and we’re serious—step-by-step instructions on how to kill Christina’s stepfather that he wants Susan and his brother to follow. Which they do.
And that is how Naomi Watts finds herself assembling a sniper rifle in her son’s treehouse. It’s quite a feat of implausibility, hence the monsoon of flabbergasted negative coverage of the film.
For an actress who works as regularly and with as much critical admiration as Watts, The Book of Henry should have been the kind of blemish that fades quickly, were she not bruised again so quickly with the release of Gypsy.
Gypsy, which premieres on Netflix this Friday, is the worst kind of prestige TV show in this age of endless TV options: the kind that seems to have no reason to really exist.
It was announced in the middle of what seemed to be an unstoppable maelstrom of Big Movie Actors partnering with streaming services and cable networks for expensive, heady TV series, and is one of the most obvious casualties of this new practice of flooding the waters with this kind of content.
While it may have at one time been expected that a series like this led by a talent like Watts would float above the glut of options, it’s now the case that, with an increasing lack of quality control to accompany the growing options, it’s more like a miracle when one (such as this year’s Big Little Lies or The Young Pope) actually does.
The premise fancies itself some sort of psychological thriller, albeit one that struggles to find any thrills. Watts plays Jean, a Manhattan therapist who is the wife to the perfect milquetoast Billy Crudup-y husband (played by Billy Crudup), mother to a nine-year-old who is expressing nascent desires to be gender nonconforming, and also a bona fide sociopath.
We meet her while she is about to go down the rabbit hole of her sociopathy—literally entering a basement coffee shop called the Rabbit Hole—and then in a therapy session where she is on-the-nose circling the word “boundaries.”
With a recklessness and immediate lack of conscience so jarring that you scoff rather than become invested in her unethical behavior, Jean begins inserting herself in the lives of her patients’ loved ones. Creating an alias—Diane, who loves bourbon and bisexuality—she begins dalliances with one male patient’s former girlfriend, and a friendship with another’s estranged daughter.
The whole thing moves so somnambulantly that you struggle to care whether she gets caught in her web of lies. It suffers from an off-putting confluence of predictability, glacial storytelling, superficiality, and maybe even boredom with itself—which might explain how a 10-episode series manages to exist without a single conflict to propel its narrative.
Watts, of course, is truly good in Gypsy. She flits between Jean’s titillation at being someone else and insecurity and frustration in her own self with careful calibration that her script barely supports. But in a landscape where so many actors are giving so many phenomenal performances in TV shows that don’t just stand up to their actors’ talents, but enhance them (and are, you know, good), that isn’t enough.
At a time when we’re celebrating the breadth and complexity that a TV series can give to an actress’s characterization, with the opportunity to tell a story over 10 or more hours instead of a film’s 90 minutes—or in the case of a female’s typical film role, a handful of scenes—it’s tantalizing to imagine Watts heading a series. We just wish it was a better one than this.
It’s not that we even feel like Watts’s career is “in trouble,” though the film blogosphere tends to perceive that it is at any given moment.
In fact, her next film, The Glass Castle, is already in the Oscar conversation by mere virtue of its pedigree: she and Woody Harrelson star as parents to Brie Larson, who resents them for their nonconformist, nomadic parenting style. The film is based on a 2005 New York Times bestselling memoir by Jeannette Walls.
The last decade of Watts’s career has had the kinds of undulating highs and lows one might expect from an actress with a penchant for such diverse projects and genres, who works with as varied a roster of filmmakers, and whose almost incessant risk-taking carries with it a realistic success rate.
For each surprising, scene-stealing performance in a St. Vincent or Birdman, there’s a gross misfire like the Princess Diana biopic or the listless Divergent sequels. For every bold arthouse step like 2009’s polarizing Mother and Child, there is a universally panned misstep like 3 Generations—this year’s ill-conceived lighthearted romp about how a family deals with a daughter’s gender transition.
It’s a kind of career that’s to be admired, and not terribly dissimilar to that of fellow Aussie and best friend Nicole Kidman, down to the #PeakTV-timed foray into prestige television—with Watts’s turn in Gypsy following Kidman’s transcendent work in Big Little Lies earlier this year.
But with a pile-up of dreck bringing Watts and her career into focus, this is occasion to celebrate her talents and demand that they be put to better use—something for which the Hollywood powers that be could always use a finger-wagging reminder.