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

May 13, 2016
Originally published on May 13, 2016 5:54 pm

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).

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Dating is plenty complicated, but suppose romance came with deadlines and a penalty for not meeting them. That's the dilemma Colin Farrell faces in his new film, "The Lobster." NPR critic Bob Mondello says it's a comedy with an absurdist twist.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: David is a nebbishy guy whose wife has just left him. He lives in a slightly futuristic society that really values coupledom. So as soon as it becomes clear that he's single, the authorities pack him off to the hotel where the check-in is a little unusual.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOBSTER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Have you ever been on your own before?

COLIN FARRELL: (As David) No, never.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Your last relationship lasted how many years?

FARRELL: (As David) Around 12.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Sexual preference?

FARRELL: (As David) Women. Is there a bisexual option available?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) No, sir. This option is no longer available.

MONDELLO: When David gets to his room, the manager explains how his stay is going to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOBSTER")

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As hotel manager) Did you read the leaflet?

FARRELL: (As David) Yes, I did.

COLMAN: (As hotel manager) Very good. Now the fact that you'll turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you.

MONDELLO: Got that?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOBSTER")

COLMAN: (As hotel manager) Just think - as an animal, you'll have a second chance to find a companion. But even then, you must be careful. You need to choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd.

MONDELLO: Well, yes. David's nodding at all this and occasionally looking at the dog that used to be his brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOBSTER")

COLMAN: (As hotel manager) Now, have you thought of what animal you'd like to be if you end up alone?

FARRELL: (As David) Yes, a lobster.

COLMAN: (As hotel manager) Why a lobster?

FARRELL: (As David) Because lobsters live for over 100 years, they're blue-blooded like aristocrats and stay fertile all their lives.

COLMAN: (As hotel manager) I must congratulate you. The first thing most people think of is a dog, which is why the world is full of dogs. Very few people choose an unusual animal, which is why they're endangered. A lobster is an excellent choice.

MONDELLO: So now he's got 45 days to pair up with someone. Everyone in the place assumes that compatibility means like with like. A guy with a lisp looks for a gal with a speech impediment. All is with the knowledge that things may not work out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOBSTER")

JOHN C. REILLY: (As lisping man) I want to be a parrot if I don't make it. Why don't you become parrots, too? And then we'll all be together.

BEN WHISHAW: (As limping man) You're a complete idiot - picking one of the few animals that can talk when you have a speech impediment. You'll lisp even as an animal.

MONDELLO: David discovers there is an alternative of sorts. In the woods surrounding the hotel are a lot of animals - camels, Shetland ponies, flamingos - but also a bunch of escaped loners who prize lonerness (ph) as strongly as the rest of society prizes coupledom, which sounds fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOBSTER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) You can be a loner as long as you like. There is no time limit.

MONDELLO: Except there are still rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOBSTER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Any romantic or sexual relations are punished.

MONDELLO: Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is fond of hermetically sealed satires like this, where the logic is rigidly internal and the results of following that logic, decidedly strange. "The Lobster" is his first film in English and plays cleverly with the compatibility assumptions behind, say, singles groups and online dating sites to know how he feels about the idea that opposites attract. But perhaps it's reflected in the opposite first and second halves he's given the movie. The early-going is comic and light, then Colin Farrell's David escapes into the woods, encounters soul mate Rachel Weisz, and there's a tonal shift to serious darkness. Arguably, that's less rewarding. But if weird is what you're looking for, "The Lobster" is, claws down, the romantic comedy for you, though possibly not one you'd want to choose for a first date. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.