Friday, June 4, 2021

Sympathy for de Vil: CRUELLA

Director Craig Gillespie’s energetic follow up to his swaggering true-crime I, Tonya plays out a rollicking rivalry between fashion designers in 70s London. One is an old fashioned grand dame Baroness (Emma Thompson) used to ruling the scene by any means necessary. The other is a prickly proto-punk misfit who gets a job as an underling, but all along is gunning for the older woman’s throne. There’s fun to be had here, as Gillespie keeps the pacing quick and camera fluid, catching sumptuous production design and snappy performances. That it happens to be a quasi-prequel to 101 Dalmatians is simply a fact of what elements get projects green lit in Hollywood these days. As such it suffers from some belabored backstory and a need to make everything connected. Who needed to know about Cruella de Vil’s unhappy childhood? However, the rest of the picture is such a feast of fashions and attitude that I hardly cared. It works best when it leans away from the need to provide token psychological underpinning to such a classic Disney villain — the standard formula in many of what Bob Iger so inelegantly coined “brand deposits” — and leans into giving us more of her beautiful wickedness. The result is great actors are swanning around in fabulous costumes and chewing every bit of snazzy scenery in sight. That it would be an enjoyably outsized glossy period melodrama drifting on a confident hodgepodge style and a soundtrack grooving on loud hits of the era without the cute references to an animated classic is a good sign.

The movie finds the most fun when it sticks with its charismatic cast colliding. Stone makes a good theatrical villain-in-the-making and Thompson a fine foil. There’s always been that underlying sarcasm, the self-satisfied smirk, underneath Stone’s work and here (as with the cunning schemer she played in The Favourite’s prickly palace intrigue, a role also scripted by this film’s co-writer) she can cut loose against Thompson serving her finest looking-down-the-nose casual cruelty. As Cruella enlists the help of longtime friends and flunkies (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser) to help her plan elaborate revenge plots to get one over on the older woman and make herself a name in the fashion world, there’s a capering heist quality to the film’s best set pieces. She shows off her designs — all color-coded to match her natural shock of black-and-white hair — in elaborate prankish stunts, upstaging the fuming Baroness every step of the way, and provoking her potentially homicidal wrath. This tension is joined by a dash of twisty family drama that’s just over the top enough to fit the bill. But the focus is never pulled from the core contest of wills between two stubborn women jockeying for power. And that's where all the fun is. The more the project feints toward character study, the falser it feels; I could do without the cloying voice over and the attempts at making us feel sorry for Cruella instead of serving up what’s sure to become the marvelous whirling dervish of monstrous high-class privilege. Better to let the ladies plot and plan and fight. Unlike the 1996 live-action remake of Dalmatians, which gave Glenn Close similar excuse to cut loose with a howling well-dressed villain, Cruella, cut free from most constraints of a straight remake, has the ability to let Stone grow into that enjoyable cackle, taking a sudden chill the more she's prepared to take her rival down.

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