Thursday, February 28, 2019

Find Something, Leave It: Huppert turns formulaic "Greta" into nutso camp


Greta (2019)
98 min.
Release Date: March 1, 2019 (Wide)

If it weren’t for the “…from Hell” thriller label the film embraces, “Greta” would pan out as a lovely platonic May-December relationship drama about loneliness, but that would make it far less twisted, bonkers, and fun to watch. Writer-director Neil Jordan (2012’s “Byzantium”) and co-writer Ray Wright (2010’s “The Crazies”) approach the material with just enough of a wink, recognizing what kind of movie they’re making and diving wildly into a blurred mix of camp and black comedy. As the “Single White Female”-esque surrogate-mother-from-Hell entry in this well-worn but admittedly irresistible sub-genre, “Greta” is a high-end B-movie with a pedigree (and a warning against being a Good Samaritan). It’s formulaic and prefers not to get psychologically deep, but given a major lift by a gleefully unhinged performance by Isabelle Huppert (2016’s “Elle”) and Chloë Grace Moretz’s emotionally vital and forthright presence.

After her mother passed away a year ago, recent college graduate Frances McMullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) left Boston to live in Manhattan with her best friend, Erica (Maika Monroe), in a Tribeca apartment that Erica’s Daddy bought. About to get off at her stop on the subway, she finds a handbag that belongs to an older woman. Despite the street-smart Erica urging her not to, Frances decides to return it to its rightful owner, Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a friendly French widow who lives alone since her daughter left for Paris. Greta is so grateful and invites Frances inside for coffee, and from there, they begin an unlikely friendship that fills the void in each other’s life. They make dinner together and play piano, and Frances tags along with Greta to adopt a dog that’s about to be put to sleep. Everything is going well, until Frances is at Greta’s home and finds a cabinet full of handbags identical to the one she found on the subway, along with other women’s names and phone numbers on post-it notes. Realizing she has been manipulated and took the bait, Frances shuts down Greta, ignoring her many calls and voicemails and leans into Greta when she shows up at the fine dining restaurant where Frances works. Greta’s stalking worsens, though, as she stands outside the restaurant for hours on end and makes it clear that she’s not going anywhere until Frances remains her friend because, as Greta says, “Everyone needs a friend.”

Anyone who has ever seen a movie about a possessive, aggrieved character who doesn’t take rejection lightly will catch on before Frances does, but that’s customary in this type of film. A De Palma-esque dream within a dream besides, “Greta” takes on a loony, almost surreal logic, as the script strains credulity to give Greta supernatural powers of sorts, like the ability to be unseen, to show up in Frances’ face when she least expects it, and to gain access into Frances’ apartment. Seemingly normal and sophisticated at first, Greta takes some time to reveal that she isn’t playing with a full deck, doesn’t know the definition of personal space, and will keep turning the screws until Frances pays attention to her. Not unlike Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest, Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Hedy Carlson, Greta has clearly lost her mental stability through years of loneliness, her new obsession stemming from her maternal love and neediness, which gives her traces of pathetic vulnerability before showing her certifiably dangerous capabilities. Clearly having a ball as the villain, the divine Isabelle Huppert is fascinating to watch as she makes Greta's insanity feel controlled at times and intensely explosive at others, and she manages to find surprising, darkly amusing notes to play in a mostly stock role. Watching Huppert spit her gum out into her younger co-star’s hair, joyously twirl around like a deranged ballerina when she goes in for the kill, and then make a huge scene by flipping a table at a restaurant is delicious popcorn-entertainment fodder.

Chloë Grace Moretz is sympathetic as the impressionable Frances, who aside from seeing the good in people doesn’t make many dumb mistakes (even if she doesn’t just block Greta’s number); she calls the police in the early stages of Greta's stalking, even if their efforts are ineffectual, and when she’s finally captured by Greta, Frances does deserve points for making a feisty getaway attempt. Maika Monroe (2015’s “It Follows”) also sparkles as the privileged, yoga-stretching Erica, a would-be throwaway role that the actress enlivens with sharp line readings and no-nonsense, Greek chorus-like intelligence, while Stephen Rea (who tends to work with director Jordan) steps in as a private eye who might as well be wearing a name tag that reads, “Next Victim.” 

What seems largely derivative remains eminently watchable the juicier and more overwrought “Greta” gets, and director Neil Jordan unabashedly inserts menacing musical stings to punch up the horror-thriller dread. A sequence where Frances begins receiving real-time photos of an unsuspecting Erica at a bar on her phone from a sneaky Greta is a tensely creepy highlight, and the use of a cookie cutter in self-defense is bloody inspired. While the table-turning finale adheres to the climactic undead-killer and to-the-death showdown tropes, it still satisfies immensely. There comes a point where it’s hard to take much of "Greta" seriously, but then again, Neil Jordan presumably doesn’t want us to take this nutso, slickly shot psychodrama as seriously as his performers who are committing 100%. 

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