Sunday, February 11, 2018

February's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: BIG LITTLE LIES

At an awards ceremony in late 1917, Nicole Kidman attracted some notice for her demonstrative kiss of co-star, Alexander Skarsgård, before she mounted the stage to accept her award. After watching Skarsgård play her sadistic spouse in BIG LITTLE LIES (BLL), this viewer enjoyed seeing Kidman differentiate in public between the abuser who suffocates her with violence and the actor who plays the part. (Skarsgård perfected this M. O. as a particularly memorable vampire in HBO’s True Blood, a much wider-ranging vehicle for his acting chops.)

This ingenious and surprisingly well-crafted, seven-episode series is many things: real estate, lifestyle, and violence porn plus a murder mystery. The NYT reviewer Mike Hale called it a “compendium of cliches about upper-middle-class angst.” But its slickly designed surface (often referenced by the automatic rise of a shade on a picture window exposing a gorgeous rolling expanse of ocean that begins each episode) is package gloss.

BLL carefully constructs the package beauty and then leaps beyond Desperate Housewives angst to seduce with absorbing drama.

 Adapter/screenwriter David E. Kelley (at left), director Jean-Marc Vallée, and cinematographer Yves Bélanger, play a neat trick: They dazzle the audience with drool-worthy excess and then slowly unspool everyday domestic miseries that blot out the beauty of sparkling sun, glinting waves, and glass-walled houses (as below, the home of Laura Dern’s character, Renata).

This creative threesome purposely shows that good writing, direction, and some breathtaking images can reduce the campy trademarks of TV melodrama to wallpaper in the face of a carefully-spun, compelling story. The tension between enviable lives and suffering over the minutiae of daily life seems to be the modus operandi here. (Are these folks so ill-tempered because their sense of entitlement has raised their expectations too high?) At any rate, the viewer is unwittingly drawn into these characters’s lives, ignoring their apartment-size kitchens and their ocean vistas to instead mindfully attend to the troubles they are muddling through.

The book on which the series is based was written by Liane Moriarty, an Australian, whose novel of suburban angst is domiciled in suburban Sydney. It was a NYTimes best seller, as have been other novels of hers. Kelley places Moriarty’s story in ocean-front Monterey, California.

The story involves five women, their six-year-old first graders, their spouses, therapists, teachers, nannies, neighbors, and the police. (Below, the kids -- from l: Ziggy, twins Josh and Max, Amabella, Skye, and Chloe.)

Celeste (Kidman) is a perfect beauty and accomplished lawyer who stays home with her twin boys at handsome husband Perry’s (Skarsgard) needy urgings. They are caught in a cycle of passionate sex that grows increasingly violent (that is, Celeste turns Perry’s violence into sex as a means of pretending their coupling is not abuse but over-heated love-making). Busy-body Madeline (Reese Witherspoon, shown at right, two photos above) is on her second marriage and has two daughters — cherubic little Chloe and teenager, Abigail, from her first marriage; her life is a bit dull but she diverts herself with community projects and friends whom she mother’s. She is best friend’s with Celeste but takes up with newcomer Jane (Shailene Woodley, below) who has just moved to Monterey and lives in a tiny bungalow where she sleeps in the living room, giving her sweet-natured boy, Ziggy, the bedroom. Jane has a secret that she eventually tells Madeline — her son is the result of a rape that actively haunts, leading Jane to keep a gun under her pillow.

Renata (Laura Dern) is a high strung Silicon Valley executive who rants that her professional success makes everyone hate her and rages even more that her little girl, Amabella, is rumored to being bullied by Ziggy at school and yet no one is calling him to account. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) is a peace-maker, a ‘fruits and nuts’ yoga instructor married to Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan. Their daughter, Skye, is friends with Chloe, and Bonnie and Nathan strive to co-parent Nathan’s daughter Abigail from his marriage to Madeline (Bonnie and family below). The relationship between the two families is fraught, to say the least.

The focus rotates among the households dwelling on one or another bit of domestic angst, but it gradually sharpens its scrutiny on the violence between Celeste and Perry, in which a therapist intervenes with more than usual insistence to explicitly warn Celeste of real threat to her well-being from Perry’s escalating rages.

There are two Greek-like choruses to these doings. The chorus of police launch the first episode and recur intermittently right up to the closing image in the series, seeking to solve the murder and remaining suspicious of the characters (through binoculars) even after the case has been resolved. Police activity alternates with a second chorus of friends and neighbors who gossip about the main characters.

Despite the choruses’ intermittent reminders that we have a murder here, the viewer barely pays attention, distracted by the daily interactions among the couples and their children. Then -- in the most satisfying resolution of who, what, and why -- we discover who was bullying Anabella, who is dead and how it happened. Kelley pulls the plot strands together in a few short moments consisting mostly of exchanged looks among the women and one resolute gesture, proving that a who-done-it can resolve itself with a completely satisfying, surprising, yet believable conclusion.

The story here, despite deliberately misleading cues, has not been about a murder at all, but about the day in/day out interactions among the women based on loyalty and affection, mixed with daily irritations and mistrust. Witherspoon’s Madeline, for instance, is bossy and irritating (Elle Woods 20 years later), so much so it was touch and go whether I would survive the first episode, but as we come to know her in different circumstances, a sympathetic and generous woman emerges from the package gloss. Laura Dern’s character, Renata, is even more shrill and unpleasant but she softens surprisingly when she gets new facts. Celeste emerges from semi-self-delusion to take control of her life. The group of women come together not as a group of victims or belligerents, but in a moment of collective understanding and mutual support, validating Hillary Clinton’s adage: It takes a village. 

Perhaps because the resolution was so swift and satisfying, talk of a second series has been marked with ambivalence — this gem can’t be topped; best let it stand on its own. However, screenwriter Kelley sought and received direction from Liane Moriarty in the form of a novella that gave him some guidance about where the characters are headed, and he has already completed a second set of episodes. Kidman, Witherspoon, Dern, Woodley, and Kravitz have reportedly already signed on or are in negotiations. Meryl Streep will join the cast as Perry’s mother.

I admit to having resisted watching this series having been there/done that with the contemporary suburban melodrama thing. But its star-power and award-winnings led me to want to find out what made it land in Time’s top tv shows of 2017. It turns out to have justified itself as a well-conceived enough puzzle, dressed up as suburban melodrama, to intrigue the average soap-ignorer. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I care enough for these people to watch another seven episodes about them, even if I sincerely admire Kelley’s previous work and this impactful and clever piece of plot-making.

Big Little Lies streams on HBO, with Season 2 due to air in 2019.

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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