I must confess that Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s brilliant ‘The Curse” (co-written with Carrie Kemper and codirected with Nathan and David Zellner) brings out the masochist in me. Even so, however, thanks to the genius of third wheel Emma Stone, I found that this ten-episode mini-series is best seen in the company of numerous cannabis munchies and, to be safe, a 2 mg shot of Ativan resting right next to me on my nightstand! When I saw episode one of “Curse,” I was at the end of my tether, having just watched all five episodes of Andrew Haigh’s “The North Water” with Colin Farrell and Jack O’Connell, followed by all ten episodes of another scare-the-bejeesus-out-of-you Artic classic “The Terror” which stars the great Jared Harris and was co-directed by Oscar winner Edward Berger. It seems like I have a thing for characters stuck in cold places!
“The Curse” is an inspired amalgam of two alternative sensibilities – Fielder’s cringe comedy that we saw in the parody reality show “Nathan for You” and the docu-comedy “The Rehearsal,” and Safdie’s anxiety-inducing cinema such as the superb Adam Sandler vehicle “Uncut Gems” (codirected with brother Josh) – working seamlessly together, having fun, and getting the audience to squirm for ten solid hours.
Think of the most uncomfortable moment you’ve experienced in the last six months. Now, imagine if that feeling was multiplied exponentially and you had to deal with it constantly, from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep (assuming you get some sleep). Remember what the young Alvy Singer felt in “Annie Hall” when he read that the universe is expanding! Something like that! And while you might expect Emma Stone to bring a goyish, Diane Keaton/Mia Farrow touch to her role, her character here is a convert to Judaism. She is almost as neurotically concerned with her public persona as her on-screen husband. Spend some time in their company, and, you are exhausted from watching them be exhausting.
In the series, Stone and Fielder portray Asher and Whitney Siegel, a newly married couple who move to Española, a small town in New Mexico (it exists) on the banks of the Rio Grande, just north of Santa Fe. They are producing a new reality show called “Flipanthropy,” which is inspired by the Goop wellness and lifestyle company of Gwyneth Paltrow. Asher and Whitney believe they are two sides of the same Mother Teresa who has come to bless Española by flipping environmentally friendly and supposedly inexpensive houses and coffee shops where they employ the locals while hiding the Australian baristas. However, they are clueless about themselves, their relationship with the local indigenous people, and their relationship with the environment. It also doesn’t help that Whitney’s parents, who live a few miles away, are notorious slumlords. Meanwhile, Safdie plays Dougie, the manipulative producer and director of the show who used to bully Asher at Jewish summer camp and still makes him miserable only now; he also seems to be putting the moves on Whitney. Asher, like Whitney’s dad (played by Corben Bernsen), is burdened with a very small penis, and we get to see both of them in a sort of reverse male bonding thing!
In the first episode, Dougie convinces Asher to give money to a young girl in a parking lot named Nala (Hikmah Warsame) so they can get some good footage of him being generous. He only has a $100 bill, which he then tries to recover from Nala after the cameras stop rolling. Nala tells him that she is cursing him, which massively increases the series undercurrent of dread and anxiety. However, Asher (and, to a lesser extent, Whitney) is so absorbed in his little world that he fails to notice as things fall apart around him.
Excruciating to watch yet essential viewing.