Caption: Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Kinds of Kindness Review: Yorgos Serves Some Bad Clams

Aw, shucks!

Fans of Yorgos Lanthimos know that a lobster can be a most excellent choice. But when shellfish goes off, there’s no saving it. Lanthimos’s new film Kinds of Kindness is an oyster shucked a little too late. One can forgive the fishmonger—that’s why oysters usually come in a baker’s dozen—but any bivalve spoils quickly if not given the right care.

One can probably cut Lanthimos some slack, too, since he had an awfully high bar to meet after Poor Things. The quadruple Oscar winner, which netted a Best Actress prize for Emma Stone and a Golden Lion and a Golden Globe among the hardware for Lanthimos, has unparalleled energy from the lunatic fringe. Ditto his kooky, eccentric, and darkly funny predecessors The Favourite, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Dogtooth. That’s a lot of pearls.

But an auteur who plays it strange will inevitably hit a bad clam. With the bar so high, projects without much to say inevitably play as weird for the sake of being weird. That’s the case with the bloated Kinds of Kindness. The triptych of short stories boasts a chorus of Lanthimos’s previous collaborators—Stone, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley—and they’re all having a ball. But they let a little too loose to the point of unravelling. They create a film that’s not nearly as fun to watch as it probably was to make. Or, one hopes that the case, lest Kinds of Kindness inspire a Les Blank documentary to capture the behind-the-scenes chaos.

The only thing that works in Kinds of Kindness is Jesse Plemons. The Civil War and Power of the Dog character actor gets a lead-ish role and brilliantly inhabits it. Plemons fuels the first two chapters and then, to the film’s detriment, basically disappears in the third. While everyone else in Kinds of Kindness goes big and broad, Plemons downplays his characters. His strong silent types never quite seem sure what kind of fresh hell they’re in. In some ways, he’s a surrogate for the viewer. One can never really know what to make of the collective wackiness.

Plemons has his best grip on Robert, his character in the first story. This yarn easily proves the highlight of the film with a darkly funny and strangely sinister tale. Robert works as a commanded operative for Raymond (Willem Dafoe). He’s also his kind-of/sort-of lover, even though Robert’s married to Sarah (Hong Chau) in a marriage of peculiar dynamics.

Robert’s latest assignment is to speed his car into another vehicle and send the other driver to the ER, if not the morgue. Even though the other driver is on the deal—everyone in this world does as Raymond instructs—Robert can’t kill a man. This reluctance makes him a pariah in a company where everyone gets their daily itinerary—dress, meals, meetings—in a handwritten note from Raymond. It’s a strange world and one from which Robert can’t stand expulsion.

Plemons gives an extraordinary performance playing this earnest wet blanket Yes Man. It’s a very funny turn by playing it straight, as all the kookiness of the world that Lanthimos and co-writer Efthimis Filippou create. Story the first delivers the wicked, borderline sadistic physical comedy one sees throughout Lanthimos’s flicks. Plemons gives his sad sack gruelling self-inflicted punishments as Robert drolly realizes that T-boning someone with a death wish wasn’t a bad assignment. The desperation that Plemons injects into Robert’s descent into darkness proves wickedly endearing.

But the story that follows that one doesn’t hold the same finely-balanced edge. It flies off the rails and into La La Land too quickly for comfort. Ironically, that’s because Emma Stone isn’t at her best here even though she’s delivered some of her strongest work with Lanthimos in The Favourite and Poor Things. Stone gets upgraded to co-lead in the second story. She plays Plemons’ wife Liz who returns after being stranded on an island following a plane crash. As Plemons’ character Daniel confides to their friends Martha (Qualley) and Neil (Mamoudou Athie), though, he worries that Liz isn’t the real Liz. His proof? Her shoes don’t fit and she now eats chocolate.

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Things get a bit weird as this foursome reconvenes and tests Liz’s legitimacy. (In true Lanthimos fashion, the couples have orgies that they film and watch together.) The premise has potential, but as Plemons’ wary husband—still a schmuck, but with a spine this time—gradually hands the story over to Stone’s cypher, Kinds of Kindness starts to lose gas. For one, Stone does little to make Liz all that enigmatic. She’s just a bit of a nutter. After Bella Baxter in Poor Things, Stone clearly has a good rapport with Lanthimos, but she’s on a different brainwave than everyone else and not in a good way. The aloofness of her performance can’t land a joke this time.

That especially makes the third story tiresome. The final act proves a real slog, moreover, because, by the end of the second story, there proves to be no method to the madness. The stories have few tangible connections beyond some visual motifs and symbols and recurring actors. It has many pieces and hooks, but nothing ever clicks.

Chapter three of Kinds of Kindness out-weirds the weirdest of the weird in the Lanthimos oeuvre. But it’s all self-serving as everyone über-Lanthimosifies their performances. Part three displays the madness that occurs when an auteur achieves a certain status and actors bring assumptions about what it means to act in one of his films. There’s more stupid dancing, lobotomized line-reading, and overall hamming it up in dumb costumes. What Lanthimos leaves the audience is a puzzle that doesn’t fit together and isn’t really worth the effort. Or, to bring things back to the shellfish idea, he’s an artist who knows how to serve a mean lobster roll but gives audiences a Subway seafood salad foot-long that’s been sitting out for way too long.

Kinds of Kindness opens in theatres June 28.



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