Telluride Film Festival: ‘Poor Things’ thrusts Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo into the awards race

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Days after its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and moments before the Tellruide Film Festival audience was afforded the opportunity to watch his new film “Poor Things,” director Yorgos Lanthimos was not in the mood to preview the racy project. When Lanthimos was asked by filmmaker Karyn Kusama what he wanted to tell the packed Werner Herzog Theatre about his new movie with Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo, the three-time Oscar nominee and Telluride Silver Medallion tribute recipient seemed almost injured by the sheer thought of providing some hype. Instead, he suggested that everyone speak after the 141-minute had concluded.

A smart move, because it’s likely nothing Lanthimos could have said would have prepared Telluride viewers for “Poor Things,” a lavish, hilarious, and sex-positive exploration of a woman’s maturation process in a world seemingly created to rob her of agency at every turn. Based on the book by Alasdair Gray and adapted for the screen by Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” collaborator (and former Oscar nominee) Tony McNamara, “Poor Things” is supremely R-rated and explicit – one Tellruide viewer happily described the film as “gleeful sicko shit” – and won instant raves for Stone and Ruffalo, both of whom should factor heavily in the awards race.

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“‘Poor Things’: hot and horny lady Frankenstein(‘s monster) is a flawless premise for a movie even before you add several of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen on top of it. hard not to love this,” Indiewire film critic David Ehrlich wrote on Twitter.

In the film, which Stone also produced, the Best Actress winner for “La La Land” and three-time Oscar nominee plays a pregnant woman who is returned to life after her death by suicide by a mad scientist named Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). To do so, Godwin takes the brain from the unborn child and transplants it into his patient’s head, thus creating a grown woman with the mind of a literal baby. The film opens in black and white, with Stone’s character – now named Bella Baxter – stomping around Godwin’s home like a toddler just learning to walk with speech limitations to match. But by the end of the first act, after Bella has rediscovered the joys of masturbation and met a shamelessly sleazy lawyer named Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo) who wants to open up her sexual horizons, “Poor Things” explodes beyond the confines of Godwin’s home and the greyscale photography – and Bella realizes that being kept in an ostensible gilded cage is not what her life is supposed to be about. 

“These conditions converge to create one of the most charming, shamelessly sexual characters committed to screen — and Emma Stone’s best role yet, one that seems primed to earn her another Oscar nomination,” Vulture features writer Rachel Handler wrote in her review of the film out of Venice.

“Poor Things” has already been compared to “Barbie” in its premise, and that’s not necessarily off-base – particularly in the idea of a woman questioning why society needs to be structured in such a patriarchal fashion. That would make Ruffalo the film’s version of Ryan Gosling’s Ken, and while the veteran actor and three-time nominee doesn’t get to sing a banger like “I’m Just Ken” in “Poor Things,” his comic timing and physical prowess is unmatched. The “Avengers” star has arguably never been funnier and had the Telluride audience howling with laughter from his first scene. (After the screening, at least one pundit suggested Ruffalo could win an Oscar for his performance.) Dafoe and Ramy Youssef (who plays Godwin’s assistant) also turned in solid supporting performances that won praise from attendees as they were exiting the theater on Saturday night.

“Poor Things” received an extended standing ovation from Venice Film Festival audiences, and judging by the response after its Telluride debut – one viewer suggested it was the best Telluride film since Best Picture winner “Parasite” – the Searchlight Pictures release is likely a major contender in numerous Oscar races, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress for Stone, Best Supporting Actor for Ruffalo, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Hair and Makeup, and Best Editing. Lanthimos’ last film, “The Favourite,” received 10 Oscar nominations. The film won Best Actress for Olivia Colman.

“Poor Things” will debut in limited release on December 8.

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