With ‘Poor Things’ And ‘The Curse,’ Emma Stone Is The New Queen Of Cringe Comedy

Writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos loves to make his audiences uncomfortable, whether it’s in the subject matter presented on screen or the way he presents it. He loves using fish-eye lenses and extreme depth-of-field to distort the image, making even the most mundane moments in his films feel extraordinarily unsettling. Most of the time, his movies are also pretty funny, drawing humor from the absurdity of the human experience. His latest film, Poor Things, is definitely funny, but it also has more than its fair share of truly uncomfortable ideas and scenes.

Like Lanthimos, multi-hyphenate creative Nathan Fielder loves to provoke and disturb, leaving his audiences laughing and cringing in equal turn. When added to the searing discomfort that comes with the work of writer/actor Benny Safdie, you get The Curse, a Showtime limited series in turns hilarious and horrifying and almost always manages to be awkward.

Both The Curse and Poor Things use deeply discomforting humor to deal with topics like womanhood, pregnancy, and playing God, but they’re more deeply linked by actor Emma Stone, who stars in both. In Poor Things, she plays Bella Baxter, created by a Dr. Frankenstein-like father called God (Willem Dafoe) when he discovered a pregnant body washed ashore and chose to put the woman’s unborn infant’s brain inside of the adult mother’s body. She’s hyper-sexual but spends about a third of the movie in a toddler-like state, which can be both comical and tough to stomach. In The Curse she’s Whitney Siegel, an architect and interior designer who is trying to both get pregnant and create a HGTV series about her special eco-friendly homes with her husband, Asher (Fielder).

The characters could not be more different. Whitney is hyper-sensitive to how she’s perceived at all times, carefully manufacturing a persona that will help her sell houses and bring good to the world, albeit performatively. She longs to be put on a pedestal, objectified, like a deity or regent. Hell, the name of her HGTV series even ends up being “Green Queen.” Bella, by stark contrast, would rather disappear into the world so she can both observe and enjoy it. She has been objectified by men since her unconventional birth and longs only to be her own person.

In The Curse, Stone wrings comedy from the awkward situations Whitney finds herself in, so desperate to be politically correct and well-liked that she can’t see how much people loathe her and find her fake. She’s cringey because she cares way, way too much about what other people think, while Bella in Poor Things is the opposite. She doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks, really, following her own desires and moral compass without apology. Her brand of cringe comes from how many of her actions feel out of line with societal norms, while the people around her often react in big, emotional ways.

Where Stone allows herself to be the butt of the joke as Whitney, inspiring laughs by skewering liberal women’s white guilt, as Bella the joke is often more juvenile. Bella loves sex, which she calls “furious jumping,” and we see her having all kinds of sex with a variety of people, though it’s never played for titillation. As Alan Rickman said in Dogma, sex is the joke of heaven, and Lanthimos highlights the absurdity of human sexuality with awkward camera angles and lingering shots of slapping bodies. It’s not shown as shameful, but people around Bella are ashamed of her openness, making for plenty of slightly uncomfortable laughs.

Both roles require intense vulnerability from Stone, who lays herself bare both physically and emotionally. Where some actors might balk at looking so incredibly foolish, she gives it her all. She disappears into both roles, her own ego completely removed from the equation, and audiences are all the better for it. That’s not to say that her co-stars aren’t also bringing their A games, as Fielder and Safdie are both intensely discomforting and often unlikable in their roles, and Poor Things features hilariously uncomfortable performances from Mark Ruffalo, Christopher Abbott, and Margaret Qualley. But Stone is the center of both of these worlds, and they hinge entirely on her ability to be captivating as well as cringe-inducing. Since both Poor Things and The Curse seem to exist in worlds just adjacent to our own, she has to ground things for the audience and feel human enough to follow.

Stone has always been great in roles that tiptoe right around the edge of cringe comedy, first evidenced in teen comedies like Superbad and Easy A and the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love. In 2018, she starred in the Netflix miniseries Maniac and in her first collaboration with Lanthimos, The Favourite. This was the beginning of her ascent to cringe comedy queendom.

Maniac showed her ability to balance pitch-black humor with real emotional dramatic weight. In Maniac, she plays Annie, a woman with borderline personality disorder who forms unhealthy attachments to people and seeks to heal herself through a pharmaceutical trial. The series gets as deliciously weird as both The Curse and Poor Things, though it does not push as many potentially uncomfortable buttons as either. It allowed Stone to really show her range and her ability for more complicated kinds of comedy, as she played multiple versions of the same character, each with their own neuroses. The Favourite forces her into some pretty debasing positions as a grasping potential lover of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). She ended up enjoying working with the Greek director so much that she starred in his short, Bleat, before going on to collaborate again on Poor Things.

Stone doesn’t just inhabit these characters and bring them to life — she also helps shape their worlds behind the scenes, as she is a producer on both The Curse and Poor Things. For the latter, she’s been nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Picture. She already won Best Actress for her role in the slightly schmaltzy 2016 Hollywood musical La La Land, so it will be interesting to see if she can snag a second trophy for a very different kind of performance. Regardless of whether or not she takes home any Oscars for Poor Things, she’s clearly made her mark as a complex comedian to be reckoned with. All hail the new queen of cringe. Long may she reign.