More than a few people I know keep a whole neighborhood of house-flipping reality shows in their “Recordings” queue, making for reliable comfort viewing as they get lost in the inspirational, feel-good stories told on “Flip or Flop” or “Property Brothers” or “Fixer Upper” or “House Hunters” or “Love It or List It.” One could easily imagine an HGTV series called “Flipanthropy” joining the roster in this genre — a show that depicts the efforts of an earnest, newlywed couple as they endeavor to uplift a struggling New Mexico town by building homes that leave little or no environmental footprint, all the while creating adjacent businesses and job opportunities for the local Native American community.
Talk about a couple of heroes!
We don’t yet have that show, but we’re getting a dark and deeply strange and wickedly funny satire in the form of the 10-part Showtime series “The Curse,” in which Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder play the newlyweds who are the creators and stars of the fictional “Flipanthropy.” Created by Fielder (“Nathan for You,” “The Rehearsal”) and Bennie Safdie (who with his brother Joshua is the co-director of “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems”), both specialists in creating material that is designed to make us deeply uncomfortable, this is peak Cringe Viewing territory that makes “Curb Your Enthusiasm” seem almost cuddly by comparison.
While the writing carries a piercing edge and the commentary on race, gentrification, cultural appropriation and the sometimes wildly deceptive nature of “reality” TV is spot on, this is the kind of polarizing series that will have some viewers so addicted they’ll want to hook up an IV to their remotes, while others will be howling, “I can’t spend another minute with these awful people!” by the end of the premiere episode.
Though the material doesn’t always sustain over the long haul, the length of the series does afford the Oscar-winning Stone to deliver what just might be the most impressively rich and mesmerizing work of her career. She’s playing a character, Whitney, whose entire life is about convincing the world she’s a good person doing important things, when there’s a sour core inside her telling her that’s just not so.
Whitney designs mirrored, passive houses in the working-class, ethnically diverse community of Epsańola, New Mexico. Priced in the high six figures, Whitney’s “art,” as she labels her homes, offers the promise of living in a home that doesn’t require air conditioning or a gas stove because the home itself will do that work while remaining in harmony with the land; that kind of thing. It all seems very … experimental.
Whitney and her husband Asher (Fielder), who handles the sales and construction contracts, are also selling the idea that luring wealthy, out-of-town home buyers and bringing coffee and designer jeans chain stores to Epsańola will lift up the entire community.
Chronicling this journey every step of the way (we often see scenes playing out in docudrama style, with the camera lurking on the other side of a window or in nearby shrubbery) is Asher’s longtime friend, the dicey human being and obnoxiously cynical producer Dougie (Safdie), who manipulates nearly every moment for maximum drama while dealing with a trunkful of his own baggage.
Early on, Dougie stages a feel-good moment in which Asher hands money to a little Somali girl named Nala (Hikmah Warsame) who is selling mini-cans of soda in a parking lot. Asher has only a $100 bill on him, and after he believes the cameras have stopped rolling, he takes back the cash with the promise of giving Nala $20, prompting Nala to stare at him with contempt and proclaim, “I curse you.”
It’s nonsense, of course. Or is it?
When Asher attempts to ingratiate himself with Nala’s family and get her to lift the curse, her father Abshir (Barkhad Abdi) takes him aside and tells him to cease and desist, because if you put such ideas in your head, they can become real. Indeed, nearly everything Whitney and Asher try in order to convince the locals their efforts are sincere while they’re also attempting to get the show picked up by HGTV regularly blows up in their faces, in spectacularly disastrous fashion.
Whitney is the poster child for Condescending White Women, her face often frozen in an exaggerated smile as she processes bad news and gets called out for her nonsense.
Fielder has the challenge of playing opposite one of our best actors in scene after scene, and he’s up to it, creating a pathetic yet oddly interesting sad sack whose life is turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy of serio-comic tragedy.
Safdie’s Dougie, while arguably the worst of the lot, might be the only redeemable soul. Might be. Nizhonniya Luxi Austin is also outstanding as a local Native artist named Cara who Whitney keeps calling a “close friend,” but is clearly repulsed by Whitney’s desperate and often offensive attempts to be culturally sensitive.
To its credit, “The Curse” never takes its foot off the pedal, to the point where we’re absolutely sure Whitney and Asher are going to crash and burn — yet we’re still not prepared for the inspired lunacy of the fate that awaits them.