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'The Lobster': A Rom-Com With Satirical Claws

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in <em>The Lobster, </em>which plays around with the idea of compatibility.
Despina Spyrou
Courtesy of A24
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster, which plays around with the idea of compatibility.

Dating is plenty complicated as things stand. But suppose romance came with deadlines, and a penalty for not meeting them. That's the dilemma Colin Farrell faces in filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos' latest weirdness. The maker of Dogtooth, which takes home schooling to comically absurd extremes, and Alps, which does much the same for the process of grieving, is tackling notions of romance in The Lobster, and let's just say that rom-coms don't come much stranger.

Farrell plays David, a doughy (the actor gained 40 pounds for the role), nebbishy guy whose wife has just left him as the film begins. He lives in a slightly futuristic society that so values coupledom that living a solitary existence is simply outlawed. So as soon as it becomes known that he's single, the authorities pack him off to a grand rural hotel where the manager (a deliciously matter-of-fact Olivia Colman) explains the ground rules: Guests have 45 days to couple-up, and if they fail to do so, they'll be turned into an animal of their choice. David has brought his dog (formerly his brother, who didn't make it) so he knows the ropes.

What animal, wonders the manager, has David chosen to become in the event that he can't find a compatible mate? "A lobster," he replies, noting that lobsters remain fertile for life, have blue blood like aristocrats, and that anyway, he quite likes the sea.

"Excellent choice," he's told, and the clock starts ticking.

Everyone in this society assumes that compatibility means "like with like," so a guy (Ben Whishaw) who wants to attract a girl who gets nosebleeds bangs his head against walls to make his own nose bleed. A guy (John C. Reilly) with a lisp looks for a gal with a speech impediment. David briefly tries to ingratiate himself with a heartless woman by faking indifference to her. Always, though, there is the knowledge that things may not work out.

David discovers there is an alternative of sorts. In the woods surrounding the hotel are quite a lot of unusual animals — camels, Shetland ponies, flamingos — but also a revolutionary bunch of loner escapees. For recreation, the hotel guests hunt them with tranquilizer darts, with each bagged loner getting the hunter an extra day of beasthood-avoidance. The loners, who prize lonerness as strongly as the rest of society prizes coupledom, have their own set of rules, which turn out to be just as peculiar — and simultaneously funny and cruel — as those of the society they're rebelling against.

Greek filmmaker Lanthimos is fond of hermetically sealed satires like this, where the logic is rigidly internal and the results of following that logic determinedly strange. The Lobster is his first film in English, and it plays cleverly with the compatibility assumptions behind, say, singles groups and online dating sites.

Hard to tell how he feels about the idea that opposites attract. But perhaps it's reflected in the opposite first and second halves he has given the movie. The early going is comic and light. Then, when David escapes into the woods and encounters soulmate Rachel Weisz, there's a tonal shift to darkness, coupled with violence.

Arguably, that's less rewarding. Still, if weird is what you're looking for, The Lobster is, claws down, the rom-com of the year (though possibly not one you'd want to choose for a first date).

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.