‘Vivarium’ Review: Jesse Eisenberg Satire Bites Off More Than It Can Chew

Cannes 2019: Eisenberg and Imogen Poots star in director Lorcan Finnegan’s film set in a purgatorial pre-fab suburb, but it never follows through on its interesting ideas

Feeling simultaneously overstuffed and undercooked, Lorcan Finnegan’s “Vivarium” tries to ring a warning bell about, well, a lot of things. In the end, though, it works best as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of filmmakers biting off more than they can chew.

Clearly a lot of thought went into the film, which premiered on Saturday in the Cannes Film Festival’s International Critic’s Week sidebar. The story of a young couple trapped in a purgatorial pre-fab housing complex, “Vivarium” tries to work as a consumerist satire, as an allegory about parenting and as a sci-fi thriller, but it never fully satisfies on any one front.

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play a thirtysomething couple looking to take the plunge into homeownership. On a lark, they agree to visit a pre-fab suburb somewhere on the outskirts of town, mostly to gawk at the units that look like Monopoly houses painted in the uniquely unappealing shade of pea soup.

Only when it comes time to drop the laughs and head home, they find themselves unable to leave, driving in circles around the seemingly deserted suburb until their car runs out of gas and they decide to retire back to the house they toured for the night.

The next morning, a parcel arrives full of individually packed food products and amenities; then another parcel arrives the following day, this time containing a baby and a note: “Raise the child, and you’ll be freed.”

There’s a version of this that could work perfectly well as a comic allegory, a Jorge Luis Borges-like riff on Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” where the characters find themselves in a not-so-beautiful-house, with a not-so-beautiful life, asking themselves, well, how did they get here?

Another version of this film could lean harder into the human menagerie connotations of the title, foregrounding the more overt sci-fi elements the script tries to bluster its way through.

Both versions would be perfectly fascinating, and both could make for a richer film. But this hybrid ends up feeling like a bull session, throwing out promising avenues and interesting ideas without ever sticking on any of them long enough to consider their potential and see them through.

Which is too bad, because the film engages from a technical perspective, with sharp production design that plays up the inherently alien plasticity of the ‘burbs, and the story is anchored by a particularly strong lead performance from Poots. Maybe it’s fitting, then, for a film all about the parenting to inspire that most withering parental admonishment: We’re not mad at you, “Vivarium,” we’re just disappointed.

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