Review: HBO made an East Coast companion to ‘Big Little Lies.’ It’s as tiresome as it sounds
In “The Undoing,” producer-screenwriter David E. Kelley and star Nicole Kidman offer a sort of East Coast companion to their California coastal melodrama, “Big Little Lies.” Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel “You Should Have Known” (now retitled after the miniseries), the limited series, which begins Sunday on HBO, features murder, rich and poorer people in close proximity, and humdrum respectability imperfectly masking darker business.
Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a glamorous Manhattan relationship therapist married to Jonathan (Hugh Grant), a glamorous pediatric oncologist; their son Henry (Noah Jupe) attends a glamorous private school that is also the locus of whatever social life Grace manages to find time for, which can be difficult after all when you’re a glamorous relationship therapist married to a glamorous pediatric oncologist. (She has one actual friend, an attorney played by Lily Rabe, who notices things Grace does not and pops in now and again, often by telephone, to advance the plot or give Grace someone relatively neutral and normal to talk to. It is always a bit of a relief to see her.)
As a therapist, Grace is good at pinpointing how her clients can deceive themselves, especially when it comes to romantic attraction. But while she might detect the mote in others’ eyes, she is insensible to the beam in her own. And of course it’s quite possible to live with another person for years while developing only a sketchy idea of who they are “really.” That’s the main point of the book formerly known as “You Should Have Known,” and of “The Undoing” as well. Certain plot points strain credulity, it’s true, but the world strains credulity every day. Should popular art be held to a higher standard?
At first Jonathan behaves as if he had learned how to act from watching old Hugh Grant movies, the ones like “Notting Hill,” where he’s all shy charm. Indeed, for a brief time there is no reason to believe we are not watching an upper-crust rom-com. But soon enough a woman (Matilda De Angelis), who has a child at Henry’s school, turns up dead and Jonathan, who is supposedly away at a pediatric oncologists convention, becomes impossible to locate. Suspicion falls; detectives (Edgar Ramirez, Michael Devine) arrive.
Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday’s episode of “Big Little Lies.”
For her part, as a heroine with limited agency and a husband who might not be as sweet as he seems, Grace recalls the character played by Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” (featuring that other Grant, Cary). The production as a whole, meanwhile, has a little bit of the suffocating air of late 20th century thrillers like “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct” — though once De Angelis, who approaches Grace at the gym like Eve before fig leaves, leaves the scene, the erotic element pretty much evaporates.
Readers of the novel will note that Jonathan, who is offstage throughout the book, has been completely integrated into the action here, and that other storylines have disappeared entirely. It makes some sense, to be sure, given that the book essentially takes place in Grace’s head and the miniseries is, you know, a movie. New inventions include a lengthy trial sequence — a Kelley specialty, after all, from “L.A. Law” to “Boston Legal” — that does tend to go over things you have already seen or been told, but has the advantage of introducing Noma Dumezweni as Jonathan’s lawyer: a crisp, no-nonsense performance that feels fully embodied despite an absence of of personal detail, more than some characters about whom we are told and shown much.
Director Susanne Bier (an Emmy winner for “The Night Manager”) delivers a good-looking product, well-dressed and highly polished. When an excitable mob is required, a mob is hired, not half a dozen extras spread around to fill a space. The numerous fancy places in which the action transpires are as grand as can be. Grace’s father, played Donald Sutherland, another handsomely aging actor of toothy charm, seems rich enough to buy all Manhattan, and fit it into his apartment. There are a few references to the entitlements and self-protective strategies of the very rich — though Sutherland’s character seems a decent guy, if not completely above suspicion — but “The Undoing” does not offer much in the way of social commentary or satire. At a stretch, one can connect it to our national experiment in myopia and gullibility, in our readiness to call green pink or believe that day is night, but that is really just a sprig of parsley on the lobster frittata.
Steven Soderbergh did it. So did Jane Campion, Park Chan-wook, Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee.
Like his Old Hollywood predecessor of the same name, Grant can play goofy or menacing with equal aplomb, though the transitions here between modes can feel a little abrupt. Similarly, Kidman is fine from moment to moment, but her character is tossed about so, as facts turn to lies and lies look like facts, that a whole person hardly comes together — she seems held together by shellac. (Given the turmoil, she is a little too permanently put together; it’s not that she never has a hair out of place, but even when she does that hair has been carefully arranged.) You don’t root for her so much as await an outcome, and the drama can be become tiresome, like listening to a waffling friend talk about a relationship, arguing one side and then another, leaving you to say, “OK, leave him! All right, then don’t leave him.”
HBO has kept back the sixth and final episode from reviewers, so I cannot say whether Kelley’s conclusion will replicate or reverse Korelitz’s — he has generated a lot of new material, and the miniseries is more of a mystery/thriller than the book, which settles the whodunit long before the end, leaving room for a story of female friendship after a confining marriage. (Perhaps that matter was too close to “Big Little Lies” to take up again.) Still, barring some last-minute deus ex machina, or sci-fi quantum fiddling, once the cards are on the table, there are only so many ways the game can turn out, and you will have considered them all long before the end. The math may change a little on the way, causing you to adjust your thinking, like a GPS app recalculating a route — I especially note one breathtaking, didn’t-see-that-coming moment at the end of episode five — but ultimately you get to where you’re going, where most questions will have been answered. Or maybe not. But in any case, it will be over.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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