In The Lobster — from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, he of the bizarre cult classic, Dogtooth — Colin Farrell’s David has been sent to a sleepy seaside hotel where single guests have 40 days to find love, or else be turned into an animal. On his first day, David tells the proprietor that if forced to roam the planet as unloved, sub-verbal fauna, he’d like to do it as a lobster. “I love the water and the ocean,” he says. “I’ve always been a good swimmer.”
“That’s good,” says the severe woman. “Most people are so uncreative, they just pick dog. That’s why there are so many dogs in the world.”
The exchange is a microcosm of the rest of the film — clever, surreal, with a melancholic sense of the fantastic, and often loud-out-loud funny, if in a dry, deadpan way. It may also have the best IMDb page in the world, with characters that include “Donkey Shooter,” “Nosebleed Woman,” “Campari Man,” and “Bob the Dog,” among others.
Lanthimos certainly has a flair for the comedically absurd — visually, verbally, and conceptually. Farrell’s David is practically a human sight gag, with his caterpillar mustache, fat little belly, and constant expression of neurotic overwhelmededness. His paunch functions much like Joaquin Phoenix’s high pants in Her, always good for a grounded punchline, even when the rest of the narrative threatens to float away into conceptual never-never land. And as always, Colin Farrell can say more with his eyebrows than most actors can with a bullhorn and a sign language interpreter.
The Lobster has some intriguing things to say about the nature of relationships, but mostly just interesting ways to say them. In addition to his fellow hotel guests — John C. Reilly plays a bashful man with a lisp, Ben Whishaw an intense guy with a limp — there’s also a band of militant loners running feral outside the hotel grounds. Ruled with an iron fist by Blue Is The Warmest Color‘s Lea Seydoux (some cast, right?), the loners live off the grid, hunted by the authorities, but free from the 40-day rule as long as they can keep from getting caught. Brutal corporal punishment deters coupling among fellow Loners, or even canoodling. They can listen to music, but only electronic music, so that “all dancing is solipsistic, not social.”
Like a lot of The Lobster, it’s a clever (or certainly cute) touch conceptually, and an even better visual: Picture 30 feral humans dancing to electro in a forest. But sometimes I wondered if The Lobster had more insight into electronic music than into the nature of love, its ostensible subject. A movie this high concept can either be plot-driven or allegorical, and The Lobster frequently fell somewhere in between. It has clever twists and turns, but the central theme feels muddled and fuzzy.
The Limping Man has a crush on Nosebleed Woman, which sees him going to extraordinary lengths to prove that he too gets nosebleeds. Colin Farrell’s character’s eventual crush object, played by Rachel Weisz, is nearsighted, just like him. There’s an entire subplot dedicated to the superficiality of how we choose our mates: We both love scrapbooking, how ’bout that!
It’s a wonderful insight into the superficial similarities we sometimes use as a foot in the door with potential lovers, but… then what? Surely there’s more. Lanthimos doesn’t seem to know, and so The Lobster just offers more bonding over superficialities. And so the metaphor starts to fail, and what started as cute and quirky becomes repetitive. Without another layer of complexity, it becomes as superficial an observation on relationships as mutual nosebleeds are a basis for one.
In a similar way, The Lobster‘s characters’ deadpan matter-of-factness is funny at first, but does it have to apply to every character? Awkardly frank back-and-forths start to lose their novelty after the 10th repetition, and The Lobster doesn’t seem to know quite where to go once it runs out of novelty. It feints towards a deeper subtext, but doesn’t quite find it. Lanthimos provokes beautifully, but once he has us on the the hook he lacks follow through.
It’s hard not to see parallels between Lanthimos and Charlie Kaufman, especially since their most recent movies (Kaufman’s the brilliant Anomalisa) both deal with relationships, but also because they both share an affinity for applying the fantastic to the banalities of life, for using high concept to explore basic aspects of human nature. But where Kaufman’s exploration comes with a sense of gleeful play, and involves clear discoveries, Lanthimos’ has an air of Kabuki performativeness to it, more of a style choice than a narrative one. After the initial delight of the clever premise wears off, there are times when The Lobster feels quirky as a substitute for ideas rather than quirky as a way to communicate an idea.
I could never dismiss a movie as unique, smartly shot, and charmingly acted as The Lobster, but neither can I recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s a bold, smart concept, with imagery that’s nothing short of brilliant; in the opening scene, a woman shoots a donkey (“Donkey Shooter,” per IMDb), and the way the donkey rolls slowly sideways like a tanker taking on water, before its upturned legs stiffen and twitch subtly in an extended take, makes for a moment of perfect, unforgettable, tragicomedy. But Lanthimos feels like he’s constantly running right up to the threshold of a larger insight and bouncing off. The ending is a perfect example, with Lanthimos setting up an intriguing conflict he never resolves. Take a chance, man! I’d much rather a storyteller take a risk and maybe choose wrong than refuse to make a choice at all.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.