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'The Curse' embraces cringe and absurdism. Emma Stone wanted in before she even knew what it was

“We’re certified Fresh

Krysta Fauria
Friday 12 January 2024 14:17 GMT

“We’re certified Fresh!!!!! Don’t miss out!” filmmaker and actor Benny Safdie posted online in December, referencing his latest project with Emma Stone and comedian Nathan Fielder.

Attached to the ostensibly straightforward celebratory post was a photo of the Rotten Tomatoes score for “The Curse” — an impressive 94% endorsement from critics who watched, next to a comparatively atrocious audience score of 35%.

That's a feat the trio seems to relish.

“I want to know what it is that we actually did,” Safdie laughed, trying to pinpoint why exactly their series was so polarizing ahead of the Los Angeles premiere for its finale, which airs Friday on Showtime.

Safdie recently made headlines for confirming his professional split from his brother and collaborator, Josh Safdie (who is credited as as an executive producer on the A24 series). Although the pair had made acclaimed independent films like “Good Time” and “ Uncut Gems ” — which had a similar chasm between audience and critical response — the co-creator and star of “The Curse” has had a successful year on his own, including acting roles in “Oppenheimer” and “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

And while the series has not exactly been a hit with the masses — it was by far the least-watched Showtime series this season — “The Curse” has garnered a cult following of devoted fans, even inspiring its own subreddit filled with analysis, theories and deep dives into suggested obfuscated symbolism and religious references within the show.

It follows Whitney and Asher Siegel (Stone and Fielder), a newly married couple making an HGTV series called “Fliplanthropy,” where they purchase rundown houses in Española, New Mexico, and convert them into mirrored, pressurized “passive homes” — often likened to thermoses for their ability to self-regulate temperature — with no windows, heating or air conditioning.

Gentrification is widely seen as harmful to the residents it displaces, but Whitney and Asher bill their undertaking as one that will benefit the community, arguing they have practices in place to ensure Española's residents will not be forced out of their community — just their homes.

While filming the show with Asher’s frenemy and producer, Dougie Schecter (Safdie), Asher has a strange encounter with a young girl who curses him — a turn of events that arouses paranoia for the couple, despite their best attempts to convince themselves of its irrationality.

Though the genre-bending series might come across as merely nonsensical and avant-garde, a closer look invites viewers into a poignant meditation on questions concerning gentrification, racial and class guilt, religion and marriage.

The finale takes a turn so bizarre and terrifying that one wonders if Fielder had input from his friend, horror director Ari Aster — and whether Asher is in fact cursed. Those who crave closure or coherence will be disappointed with the final episode. But that’s not to say it isn’t there, only hard to find.

While Safdie credits Stone, who also worked as an executive producer, with getting the show greenlit thanks to her clout, many who tuned in solely for the Oscar winner have surely been caught off-guard by its esotericism.

And while some might be surprised at Stone’s participation in a project so catered to a specific, almost fringe, taste — especially as she simultaneously racks up awards for her performance in “Poor Things” — she sees a continuity between “The Curse” and her films.

“A surrealistic experience I think has been interesting to me for a long time. ‘Birdman’ was sort of that way. ‘La La Land’ was sort of that way. There’s an element of fantastical in the midst of a sort of groundedness that I find really intriguing,” she said while promoting “Poor Things.” “‘The Curse’ definitely does live in that world.”

Stone had become friends with Fielder after seeing “every episode” of his reality series on Comedy Central, “Nathan For You,” in which Fielder provides bizarre and often destructive marketing advice to small businesses, including some viral stunts so over the top and confounding that they attracted national attention.

Stone said she was so eager to work with Fielder, who co-created and wrote the series with Safdie, that she agreed to join the cast before she even knew what it was about.

For faithful fans, like Stone, of Fielder, who reaped critical acclaim for his HBO series, “The Rehearsal,” the tone and themes of “The Curse” are not surprising. His deadpan humor relies on exploiting awkward situations, real or contrived, and he is known for his almost superhuman ability to withstand cringe.

“I don’t know about that word or what it means exactly,” Fielder said sheepishly.

“Or that it’s intentional,” Stone interjected.

But the comedian maintains his emphasis on painfully awkward circumstances in his work is meant to reflect the discomfort and absurdity of real life.

“Life is uncomfortable, I think. Interacting with people ...” he trailed off, nervously — though it is difficult to discern in a conversation with him what is a bit and what is real. “I feel like if you filmed anyone’s life, it would look a lot like the show.”

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