.‘Kinds of Kindness’ Is Kind of a Chore

Here’s a quick “Test Your Entertainment-Biz Marketing Skills” quiz. How many aware, intelligent moviegoers wake up in the morning with the thought, “Gee, I’d like to see a really good allegory today.”

The obvious answer: None. Narrative films in the allegorical vein are generally one of the surest “morning after” conversation killers known to humanity. Leaving aside Star Wars, the complete Miyazaki Hayao filmography and anything by Carl Th. Dreyer, allegories tend to loom in the imagination as a dose of medicine: odd smelling, of dubious artistic value, but somehow to be taken for our own good. The latest conspicuous example: Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindness.

Hot on the heels of last year’s sensationally digressive fantasy Poor Things, filmmaker Lanthimos—no doubt encouraged by Emma Stone’s Best Actress Oscar—decides to reunite Stone and costar Willem Dafoe in a three-part meditation on…uh…life itself, bafflingly titled Kinds of Kindness.

It’s an anthology of three shortish stories all starring Stone, Dafoe, Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley and Hong Chau, and co-written by Lanthimos with frequent collaborator Efthimis Filippou. Together they add up to almost three hours of screen time, triggering lots of head scratching in the helpless audience. The adjectives “pretentious” and “obscure” barely begin to describe it.

Despite its title, Kinds of Kindness has some of the meanest points of view of any release this year. Is it ironic? Maybe, maybe not. In the first vignette, an item from the “Office Hell” file, a meek corporate junior executive named Robert (Plemons) is thoroughly humiliated by his inscrutably cruel boss (Dafoe), via intentional car crashes, ridiculous “gifts” (a broken tennis racquet), and the wicked machinations of femme fatale Qualley. Luckily—or is it?—Robert finds an ally in another car crash victim (Stone).

And then there’s the case of Daniel, a mild-mannered but secretly kinky small town policeman (Clemons again) whose life comes unglued, bloodily, when he starts believing that his wife, Liz (Stone), survivor of a recent catastrophe at sea, is an impostor. After absorbing these first two skits we begin to detect a thematic pattern amidst Lanthomos’ thickly applied absurdity: people controlling other people. Shades of David Cronenberg, The Twilight Zone or a low-wattage David Lynch imitation. Sexual eccentricity, a vital element of Poor Things, gets pasted into these latest stories almost absent-mindedly, as if the director were meeting a pre-established quota instead of acting out an original creative impulse.

There’s another drawback. Within the costumed historical settings of The Favourite and Poor Things, Lanthimos was able to spin his tales of domination versus indomitable will in the ideal “long ago and faraway” framework, with extravagant visuals to match. By comparison, the contemporary life of pitfalls and subterfuge in sterile offices and bizarrely trendy homes in Kinds of Kindness seems dull and repetitive. The world is a corrupt and unjust place in all Lanthimos’ films, but the two period pieces make it look romantic.

Part three of the Kindness trilogy, comparatively speaking the strongest and most coherent, focuses on a deranged physician named Emily (Stone) and her tropical cult of corpse-revivers, constantly on the lookout for “uncontaminated” victims, dead or alive, on which to practice their dark arts. Like the evil Dr. Josef Mengele from Auschwitz, Dr. Emily is particularly interested in twins. She’s also fond of hot-rodding around in her purple Dodge Charger.

Into the mad doctor’s web fall a pair of identical sisters (both played by Qualley) and a pitiable dog called Linda. There’s also a bit of business about an empty swimming pool and an Orgone Box-style cleansing cabin at the beach. The film is drenched in composer Jerskin Fendrix’s forbidding solo piano and choral music, exactly what we’d expect from a cheap horror flick. In fact all three episodes could function as genre parodies, none of them nearly as much fun as Poor Things. Kinds of Kindness is more of a misconceived malpractice farce.

Playing at Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto, the Cinemark theaters in Mountain View and San Jose, and the AMC Mercado 20 in Santa Clara.


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