APPLE TV+: Shrinking 

The new Apple TV+ series Shrinking focuses on the kinds of challenges you only face in what we like to call the First World. Put another way, even though it has two main Black characters in its cast, you could also say this is a show about White People Problems. That’s not meant as a dismissal. Made by Brett Goldstein and Bill Lawrence, two of the creators of Ted Lasso, the new series shares some of that show’s same feel-good light touch. Dropping its first two episodes January 27, it continues with eight more weekly half-hour installments through March.

Jason Segel, that everyman schlub, stars as Jimmy, a Pasadena therapist getting over the car-accident death of his wife by indulging in bad behavior — we first meet him during a drunken, wee-hours soak in his pool with a couple of sex workers. Just when his long-suffering teen daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell) and next-door neighbor Liz (Christa Miller) have just about had enough of this wallow in second adolescence, Jimmy pulls himself out of his slump with a sort of shock therapy to his professional life. 

After hearing her complain for years about her emotionally abusive husband, Jimmy tells one of his clients to ditch the guy and move in with her sister. She does. Then there’s the new patient, an Army veteran named Sean (Luke Tennie), who arrives with a rap sheet of assault charges due to anger issues. So Jimmy takes him to a boxing gym to work out his aggression. Then takes him home as a patient/roommate.

These tactics get the attention of his bubbly colleague Gabby (Jessica Williams, smart, off-kilter and a delight), and also his boss and mentor Paul (Harrison Ford, in a grand performance of finely aged crustiness). Shrinking is an ensemble comedy that’s all about second chances, learning to forgive, processing pain and making the right decisions. The strong cast includes Michael Urie as Jimmy’s gay best friend and Lily Rabe as Paul’s daughter, concerned about her dad’s declining health. 

Like the Netflix original series Sex Education, Shrinking demonstrates a big heart and generosity of spirit toward all its characters, even the problematic ones. Not that there’s anyone all that bad here. The downside of so much niceness? A certain tedium sets in, at least if you watch a bunch of episodes back-to-back. The dramatic stakes are remarkably low for these very privileged people. Still, the smart, clever writing and lack of cynicism can keep you coming back. 


NETFLIX: You People 

Fifty-six years after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, that movie looks remarkably dated and stagy. But its subject matter remains topical because, well, race. So, you may start watching the new Netflix comedy You People with high hopes. Just be willing to adjust your expectations for a comedy that is so busy putting racial politics front-and-center that the characters too often feel like hand puppets used as teaching props in a civics class. 

Co-written by Jonah Hill with director Kenya Barris (Black-ish, Girls Trip), People stars Hill as Ezra, a Los Angeles stockbroker with a sideline as a podcaster, talking about Black culture. Just to get it out of the way, and with all my superficiality on full view: I wish Hill had let someone else play this role. He looks rough here — puffy-eyed, bloated, with scraggly bleach-blond hair, and appearing way more weathered than the character’s supposed 35 years. That weakens the central romantic-comedy premise.  

So anyway . . . Ezra has a meet-cute with Amira (Lauren London), mistaking her for his Uber driver. A serious relationship follows. The crux of the comedy is the inevitable meeting/clash of Ezra’s Jewish parents Shelley and Arnold (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny) and Amira’s Muslim folks Akbar and Fatima (Eddie Murphy and Nia Long). Akbar shows up to dinner in a kufi given him by Louis Farrakhan, causing Shelley to allude to the Nation of Islam leader’s noted antisemitism. In turn, she’s asked if she really thinks the Holocaust of World War II is as bad as American slavery? Discuss over canapes. You get the point. 

Hill and London may be the movie’s nominal leads, but the comic stars (and occasional saving graces) are the parents. Louis-Dreyfus delivers some high-level cringe comedy as a woman overeager to seem racially welcoming, becoming an expert on Black hair and pulling a reverse-Karen when she erroneously thinks she and her future daughter-in-law are getting dissed by a receptionist at her spa. Murphy, meanwhile, delivers a master class in the art of low-simmering disapproval. (“His casual nature is terrifying,” one character accurately observes.) 

The problem is, this comedy of discomfort too often feels like a series of position papers more than a movie. The characters talk so constantly about race, they never feel three-dimensional. When the two people at its center each complain that the other has only seen him or her through the filters of skin color and cultural signifiers, it feels damagingly true about the movie itself. But hey, when we talk about some of the (many) problematic things facing us in society these days, give credit to Hill, Barris and their cast for trying to do so with a little humor. 


HBO MAX: The Last of Us and The Banshees of Inisherin 

The folks at HBO tell us that The Last of Us, arriving in weekly episodes through March, scored its highest viewership for an original series, second only to House of the Dragon. I don’t get it. Sure, since it’s based on a popular 2013 video game, the zombie show has a built-in audience. Even so, after the Georgia-shot behemoth The Walking Dead, not to mention World War Z, 28 Days Later and its sequel — and all the sequels and reboots of the original Night of the Living DeadThe Last of Us doesn’t bring anything new to the table . . . other than the idea that the zombie apocalypse is fungus-borne rather than a viral infliction. The only payoff there is that, instead of the usual slavering brain eaters, we get cauliflower-headed monsters that look like day players from  2018’s underappreciated biotoxin flick, Annihilation.

The Last of Us kicks off with a prologue set in 2003. This segment — my favorite part of the two episodes I’ve seen — reminded me of the best thing about apocalyptic horror movies. These normal, day-in-the-life slices are meant to remind us how carelessly we take our everyday existence for granted. There’s a twisted, suspenseful, Christmas-eve magic to these scenes: How will the disaster first announce itself, in what little hints? The Last of Us does a good job on this front. It’s when the action shifts to 20 years later, to a militarized, Orwellian Boston filled with teeming, grubby survivors, that things get grimly familiar. 

Here, the central MacGuffin is a teen girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey, terrific in Game of Thrones, Prime Video’s Catherine Called Birdy and here). Exposed to the zombie virus, she’s apparently immune. So, as the hope of future humanity (like the pregnant girl in the great film Children of Men), she must be protected at all costs. Here, that protector is world-weary Joel (Pedro Pascal, of Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian). He himself once had a teenage daughter. So let the emotional bonding and perilous adventures commence. Personally, I probably won’t be following along. 

Also on HBO Max, and lauded with an impressive nine Oscar nominations earlier this week, The Banshees of Inisherin can be an agonizingly slow watch, but it’s worth your patience mainly for the acting. Its four lead players  — Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan — rightly got nominations, just for making Martin McDonagh’s rustic twaddle halfway plausible. (Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell pulled the same award-winning trick in McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Farrell and Gleeson previously worked together in another, livelier McDonagh film, In Bruges. They reunite here to play a dimwitted farmer on a remote Irish island in the 1920s and his former best friend, who suddenly ends their friendship and starts mutilating himself to prove he’s serious about the rift. It makes no logical sense, but the actors sell the hell out of it. For my money, Farrell and Paul Mescal of the tiny Scottish film Aftersun are the best of the top acting Oscar nominees. 



NETFLIX: All Quiet on the Western Front

Tying Banshees with nine Oscar nominations of its own (both are among the 10 Best Picture nominees), the German film All Quiet on the Western Front dropped back in October with hardly any fanfare. That’s ironic, since Netflix has been one of the streaming platforms working hardest for Oscar recognition, starting in 2018 with Roma

I’d rather watch Alfonso Cuarón’s film several more times (he directed the previously mentioned Children of Men) than sit through All Quiet again. But the new movie, based on the novel earlier generations had to read and adapted into a 1930 Oscar-winning film, does what it’s meant to do. It tells us war is hell. Over and over again.

Like The Last of Us, Quiet begins with an eye-catching, grisly prologue. A kid named Heinrich, who looks barely old enough to tie his own shoelaces, rushes out from his WWII trench and gets bloodily killed. The name tag from his used uniform gets ripped off when the clothes are handed along for reuse to another young soldier, Paul (Felix Kammerer). He’s the fellow we follow through the rest of Edward Berger’s impressively brutal film, made on a broad, old-fashioned canvas with state-of-the-art shocks. 


NETFLIX: White Noise 

When I was just starting out as a writer, a handful of older journalists and editors I worked with (straight, White, smart guys) loved the postmodernist novels of Don DeLillo and, after him, David Foster Wallace. I never got on that bandwagon. So maybe I’m not the best audience for this adaptation of the novel that gained DeLillo his big breakthrough, 1987’s White Noise. On the other hand, I’m a fan of filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s work (The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story). And his new movie has a good cast. So I had hopes. 

Those started sagging very quickly. Adam Driver stars as Jack, professor at a small liberal college where his scholarly specialty, Hitler Studies, tells you off the bat the level of 1980s satire on offer. Don Cheadle as his colleague confirms your suspicions: His specialty is Elvis. 

From what I can tell, White Noise the film is a good reflection of the book in dosing up a self-aware brand of academic satire and attempted social shock. There are hints here of the ways the internet, not yet a reality in the film’s timeframe, would come to amplify paranoia and lies to massive effect in our own times. But the nation has survived so many tremors and pendulum swings in the near-40 years since the book came out, White Noise can seem both annoyingly arch and almost adorably naïve. Viewer mileage may vary, but for me it was a hard slog. 


NETFLIX: Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical and Emily the Criminal 

Very much on the other end of the scale, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is as delightful as its title is clunky. Adapted from the West End and Broadway productions by its director, Matthew Warchus, it’s the rare example of a successful transfer from stage to screen. 

The charming Alisha Weir plays the title role (Matilda, that is, not Roald Dahl). A super-smart bookworm born to a couple of loathsomely ignorant parents (Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham), she’s enrolled at a school full of children cowed by their vicious headmistress. Miss Trunchbull (a gleefully camp Emma Thompson) is a former Olympic hammer thrower who tosses students around by their pigtails. Expect no subtlety here. But the songs are fun and the message of self-empowerment, embedded in Dahl’s trademark sourness, is lovely. So is Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, the schoolteacher who saves Matilda from her awful parents. 

As the mom, Riseborough is nearly unrecognizable. That’s no surprise. She’s been giving sharp, intelligent performances for years now, in everything from the trippy Nicolas Cage film Mandy to an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror to Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi assassin flick Possessor. You’ve probably seen her and don’t remember; she has an uncanny ability to disappear inside a role and seem to be an entirely different person from film to film. 

People now know her name thanks to her out-of-nowhere Best Actress nomination for a movie no one’s seen, To Leslie. The nomination was spurred by famous actor friends’ 11th-hour verbal promotion, a surprise that will be talked about for years. So will the snub for the Atlanta actor whose place she may have taken: Danielle Deadwyler, the broken heart of Till

On the subject of out-of-nowhere nominations, I didn’t write about Apple TV+’s original film Causeway when it came out in November, mainly because — though it stars Jennifer Lawrence as a wounded veteran returning to civilian life — it was an earnest but forgettable flick. The only real spark in it comes from Brian Tyree Henry as a mechanic who befriends Lawrence’s character. His unshowy and honest performance deserves the recognition. 

So did the central performance in Emily the Criminal. Maybe that’s the reason Aubrey Plaza hosted SNL recently — hoping her name might be announced this week. It didn’t happen. Still, you should catch the film on Netflix. 

In writer-director John Patton Ford’s very watchable film, Plaza plays the title role, a struggling young woman trying to pay off student debt via an insufficient restaurant/catering job. When a coworker gives her a tip about a way to make an easy $200 as a “dummy shopper,” she gives it a shot, even though the gig isn’t exactly legal. That opportunity opens the door to other shady gigs, and soon Emily is partnered with a crooked entrepreneur named Youcef (the shadily charismatic Theo Rossi). Emily’s further adventures on the far side of the law take her to some nail-biting moments. Plaza’s tough but sympathetic performance keeps you hooked all the way. Happy watching. 



Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to Steve’s previous Streaming column here.

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