Watching the new film Us, Jordan Peele’s hotly anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning smash hit Get Out, got me thinking about Magnolia—Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated follow-up to his defining second film, Boogie Nights—which will have its 20th anniversary this year. Like Magnolia, Us arrives blessed with a bigger budget and laden with the hope that the director, in all his newfound freedom to explore and express the landscape of his mind, will deliver the next great gospel. What results from all that expectation, one founded on a still-molten legacy, is a mad riot of ideas and motifs, a messy gush of a movie. As Magnolia did two decades ago, Us does now.
Only, Magnolia made engaging, legible enough art out of its abundance. Us, on the other hand, is a frustrating movie, oddly inert despite all its thrashing. It’s a jumble of fascinating threads that Peele fails to weave together. It’s what you might call a junk-drawer movie, a collage of bits and bobs that have cluttered Peele’s brilliant mind for long enough that he thought he might try to synthesize them all into one movie. But the ball of rubber bands doesn’t really speak to the bottle-opener thingy; the eyeglass screwdriver doesn’t have much to do with the Ethernet cable. Each item has its own value, sure, but they don’t form a whole equal to the sum of the parts.
Us is about a lot of things—or, rather, indicates toward a lot of things, without really being fully about any of them. It concerns a family—mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), dad Gabe (Nyong’o’s Black Panther co-star Winston Duke), daughter Zora (the remarkably expressive Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex)—on vacation together. They drive a nice car, and the family home they’re staying in, near the coast of California, is well-appointed. They seem happy, prosperous. But just beneath the surface is an unease. Adelaide is wary of the whole trip; as a child, she had a mysterious experience at a beachside amusement park, a lingering trauma that sets the early notes of dread in Us.
That ominous scene, a prologue taking place in 1986, is really well staged. Peele is an inventive visual filmmaker, tilting his actors’ heads and bodies at curious angles (he does this throughout, to sometimes breathtaking effect), and imbuing his pictures with a kind of saturated glare. This opening sequence, when young Adelaide (Madison Curry) goes wandering alone into the beginnings of a nightmare, suggests that Us is headed somewhere focused and gripping, a fable of innocence lost and a dark world uncorked. The movie starts with such promise.
But as Peele gradually lays out the mechanics and components of Us, that early jolt dissipates. Us is, I think, among other things, a vague statement on inequity and class struggle, framed as a sort of unconscious Eloi vs. Morlocks system of oppression that breaks into terrible rebellion. That’s certainly a worthy allegory to tackle in this age of economic and social atomization. But Peele is both too literal and not specific enough in that inquest, showing us some hard, tangible things, while remaining coy about what those things really are and what they might mean. Cinema can, of course, be confusing and yet still inspired, erratic and discursive but still piercing. Peele needn’t dull his wild interest any. But his sophomore exuberance, unbridled and running rampant around so many beautifully lit spaces, trips him up. Little in Us lands with the wallop it should—neither the faint and meandering sociopolitical observations nor the film’s baser, more visceral aspects.
This is, after all, a horror movie, and could at least do the job of scaring us, even if it couldn’t quite connect on its deeper intentions. Peele has paced and structured Us awkwardly, though, making it hard to get hooked on the movie’s rhythm. We’re thrown into the middle of something terrifying without any build; even the jump scares (which need their own kind of build) are curiously weightless. What’s missing is true suspense, which comes from trusting a film’s concept of itself, having faith that it knows how it coils and ticks all the way to the finish, and can thus carry us precisely along its rails toward something cathartic and satisfying. But Us is too busy with asides and allusions to really give us that confidence, to truly dial in on the moment. It’s all too eager to hurry up and show us the next cool or crazy thing.
It pains me to say this. I spent a good deal of Us straining to like it, to get on its slightly preening wavelength, to be nourished by its heady stew of tropes. I couldn’t get there, though. As loaded up on stuff as Us is, there’s not enough to grab on to; it’s an alienating idea piece that lumbers away just as it’s about to reveal its true nature. It’s wonderful seeing Nyong’o get such a substantial lead role (well, lead roles, really) after so much of her post-Oscar career has steered her toward the sidelines; she tears into the material with a compelling hunger. That’s certainly one reason to celebrate Us, even if so much of what surrounds Nyong’o is a lopsided war between style and substance. If only those elements could take inspiration from the film’s title and work together. Oh, well. I have no doubt that Peele will find that harmony again someday soon.
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