Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos' trippy third collaboration“ Kinds of Kindness ”is not our favourite

The power of three doesn't carry over to the third collaboration between Stone and the Greek director.

Over the course of two films, Emma Stone and writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos have established a thrilling creative partnership that has produced some of their best work on both sides. But their third effort, Kinds of Kindness, tarnishes their sterling record together, steering away (in a purple Dodge Challenger) from the luscious narrative glee of The Favourite and Poor Things to a more meandering, avant-garde approach.

The film is a trilogy of short stories, each using a different lens to meditate on themes of love, control, power, and sex. The first, “The Death of R.M.F.,” follows worker bee Robert (Jesse Plemons) as he attempts to break free from the twisted dynamic he shares with his boss, Raymond (Willem Dafoe). Next is “R.M.F. is Flying,” in which a missing woman, Liz (Emma Stone), returns to her husband, Daniel (Plemons), who suspects she is not the same person. Lanthimos wraps things up with “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” in which Stone and Plemons portray cult members hunting for a woman who can resurrect the dead.

Many will regard this as a return to form for Lanthimos. It's his first time writing with Efthimis Filippou since 2017’s The Killing of the Sacred Deer and his first script for Stone, as Tony McNamara (The Great) wrote both previous collaborations. But without the alchemy of a McNamara script, the chemistry is off.

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With their abrupt violence, grotesque body horror, and mordant sense of humor, all three of the stories feel more aligned with Lanthimos’ earlier style, The audacity that has so defined Lanthimos and Stone’s work together remains, but here, it takes on a nastiness that becomes tedious the longer the film stretches on (and on and on to a nearly three-hour running time).

There’s plenty to dissect. Lanthimos takes a disturbing approach to three tales of dominance and submission, interrogating the language of control within the context of corporate culture, marriage, and religion. But he takes an exceedingly nihilistic view of it all, sometimes with an impulse toward humor, other times toward sex or romance. Ultimately, though, its provocations feel mean-spirited rather than ever truly outrageous or revelatory.

While the themes and the shadowy R.M.F. character create a tenuous connection between the three stories, there doesn’t seem to be any necessity for the triptych structure. These each could play as individual short films and little would be lost in divorcing them from their cinematic cousins. They are isolated narratives, exhibiting a cool separation between each other that, while seemingly purposeful, is also wearying.

Perhaps most disappointing is that the film bears little trace of Lanthimos’ signature visual genius. Kinds of Kindness appears to take place in our contemporary world, or at least, some version of it, but much of the film is shot rather unimaginatively with flat vistas, symmetrical scenery, and a sickly color palette. DP Robbie Ryan pivots from flights of fancy to suburbia at its most dreary. Yet none of it goes far enough. It’s so commonplace that it’s boring, and if there’s an intentional drabness to it, it’s too subtle to truly land (except perhaps Stone’s brown suit in the final entry, which feels both ordinary and unusual all at once in the way she inhabits it like a uniform).

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The film truly belongs to Plemons for its first two-thirds. He is compelling as Robert, a masculine, corporatized version of a Stepford Wife, who does everything Raymond tells him to do, down to what he eats, what time he goes to bed, and when he sleeps with his wife. One can feel his suffocation and confusion in equal measure, his doughy everyman quality lending Robert a discomfiting helplessness. There's some suggestion that men aren't as emasculated by their wives as much as they are by their bosses.

Though her role is brief here, Margaret Qualley, with a curly short hairstyle that is the spitting image of her mother circa 1998, is a standout. As Raymond’s wife and accomplice in his games of control, her slinky seductiveness hides a cunning beneath her wide-eyed sexuality.

In the “Flying” segment, Plemons is once again at the center of a narrative, this time as a man convinced his wife is an imposter. Plemons sells domestic delusion with aplomb, never tipping his hand as to whether his fears are real or merely imagined.

In contrast, Stone’s characters in the first two vignettes are a step backward for her go-for-broke comedic talents. As Rita, she’s little more than eye candy, a place for Plemons’ Robert to channel his loneliness. Then, as Liz, she takes on more personality via her frisky bedroom predilections, but she still has little interesting to do outside of playing the devoted woman at the heart of a man’s struggles. It's troubling to see her enjoyment of slightly kinky sex as her only defining personality trait (particularly when it's intent on making her the butt of the joke).

At least, as Emily, she possesses agency as a woman who has chosen to abandon her husband and daughter for life within a cult led by Omi (Dafoe) and Aka (Hong Chau). She propels the narrative forward as she is tugged back and forth between the allure of her old life and her role within the cult. Here, Stone gets to infuse her character with an unhinged quality that lurks beneath her unassuming exterior, one made all the more spectacular when she gets to truly unleash her psychosis in the vignette’s climax. Emily is the only role that lets that twinkle in Stone’s eye surface, as if she, Lanthimos, and the audience (if they’re willing) are in on a private joke.

Related: Emma Stone wants to be called by her real name, Emily: 'That would be so nice'

Chau should also receive credit for doing much with very little. In the second vignette, she’s a wife mourning the pending death of one of Liz’s work colleagues. But her deadpan response to Daniel’s insistence that their spouses are imposters is one of the only outright hilarious moments in the film. She has her meatiest role in part three as well, as half of a cult-leading duo who masks her more sinister beliefs behind a kind of kindness.

There is a purposeful detachment throughout Kinds of Kindness, a stilted style to the line readings that make them feel more pointedly like dialogue in a movie than the words of real people. It heightens the surrealist quality of the film, particularly when paired with the discordant choral compositions of Jerskin Fendrix’s score. In all the ways Poor Things was excessive, Kinds of Kindness is ascetic, but not in an affecting way.

Is Kinds of Kindness an allegory? Or perhaps an unnerving cautionary tale? Or an irreverent mockery of the subjects that cause humans the most angst — sex, death, and power? It is somehow all three and none of the above.

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To derive any true meaning from the film, one must have the patience of a saint (or, at least, a cult member). Lanthimos leans into an odd compulsion to simultaneously shock and underwhelm the audience, losing some of the keenly pointed provocations of his earlier work. Many of the film’s more jarring moments feel as dispassionate as the film’s dialogue and shooting style. They exist merely to shock or disgust, not for any greater narrative or creative purpose. Lanthimos’ more recent entries have possessed a lust for life that is sorely lacking here.

Instead of joie de vivre, watching Kinds of Kindness requires a certain kind of cinematic patience — and if you do make it through, you might be left wondering, what was it all for? Grade: C+

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