'The Undoing' Review: Assassination,
David E. Kelley's mini-series for HBO pairs Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant in a Manhattan mystery that criticizes the luxury bestowed by some devilish charm brand.
"I guess we should get out of town occasionally."
Grace Fraser, the incredibly put-together Upper East Side therapist at the heart of the HBO mini-series "The Undoing" (premiering Sunday), tells Jonathan, her extremely charming partner, but not Covid-19. She feels suffocated by her own rich white supremacy, reflected in the spinning nastiness of becoming a parent of Manhattan's private school. Regarding the most-talked-about 2020 pathologies, "The Undoing" bats.500.
The six-episode film, produced and written by David E. Kelley, starring Nicole Kidman as Grace, is like their previous HBO partnership, "Big Little Lies," a murder mystery wrapped in a marital melodrama. It was based on the 2014 novel "You Should Have Known" by Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose title referred to a self-help book Grace wrote and, more obliquely, her inability to see the truth about that charismatic husband.
The fresh, more dire title of the episode, with its horror-movie ring, clearly represents the point of the plot as Kelley shaped it: the undoing of Grace's easy life and seemingly happy marriage alongside the unraveling of her delusions about Jonathan, who becomes the prime suspect in a sensational murder early on. Although the demands of the glossy melo-mystery still need to be fulfilled, the show dangles (through the five episodes available for review) the chance that Jonathan is innocent — at least of murder — and that the outraged Grace will find a way to forgive him for his abundant other sins.
All this should be sexually amusing, and even enjoyable, with Kidman and Hugh Grant playing Grace and Jonathan, and Kelley providing the banter they're sharing around the kitchen island in townhouse. And it's one episode. Grace is on the school auction committee, and Kelley and Susanne Bier make the vessel an true, discreetly destructive portrait of her and her fellow moms' institutional smugness.
They also add Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), the sloe-eyed, full-figured mother of a Spanish Harlem student. She landed like a bombshell on the auction committee, secretly breastfeeding her baby in the middle of Hockneys' debate and free pre-school counselling. She also arrives on the tale like an archetype from a slightly remote and distasteful memory, a dominant lower class destructive sexual entity. But at least she's used sparingly and eerily as a device to get us into the suspense story, with her own spooky-funny music signs as she drifts onscreen.
Joy lasts a little into the second episode, with Jonathan's whereabouts unknown, Grace's nerves fraying, and the mystery form still undefined. It dissipates rapidly after that, however. The whodunit is mild and dreary, with Edgar Ramirez wasted as the lead investigator. And the court scenes, once a Kelley specialty, are tinny and dramatic. (Noma Dumezweni, as Jonathan's high-priced counsel, gives her speeches some gravitas; Sofie Grabol, of the original "The Assassination," has nothing to do with the prosecutor.) Scene by scene, we're put through the wringer of seeing manifestly intelligent people doing dumb and incredibly impossible stuff on the witness stand, on TV or in response to late-night booty calls.
The primary victim of this is Grant, for whom Jonathan's part was specifically built, like a pair of gloves. "What charm you think you have? "His lawyer questions him, and that's the answer. In the early scenes, as he cocks his head, thickens his voice and asks Grace, "Do you like to be washed? "Everything's already there.
But the effect of this part-to-actor tailoring is that while Jonathan is the perpetrator of murder and his secrets start to unfold, the plot depends on whether he's a sociopath or, well, Hugh Grant. And that turns out to be an unwinnable proposition for actor Hugh Grant, who defaults to self-parody in Jonathan's moments of crisis as the plot progresses — exaggerating the tics and hesitations we're too fond of attempting to market the melodramatic claptrap he's been saddled with.
Kidman does much better — she can do tormented golden child in her sleep, and hits no false notes like Grace. Also, Donald Sutherland and Lily Rabe spruce things up in positions right in their wheelhouses, as Grace's father-of-the-universe master and her best pal. Douglas Hodge makes an appearance in a few entirely alien scenes as Jonathan's public defender; the character's one addition to the show's texture is that he attends meetings in one of New York's great community institutions, the Lexington Avenue steakhouse Donohue's.
It's possible to love (or bemoan) "The Undoing" with its visual evocation of a crowded, vital, pre-pandemic New York City if you tuning the laughter aspects of the plot. In any case, the most important guy in development is the genius cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Slumdog Millionaire," "T2 Trainspotting"), who first conducted a whole TV series. He captures New York as both fantasy and nightmare — in not quite hallucinating streetscapes, or in the way a city stroll brings you continuously in and out of sun and darkness. For a bit, the show's everything that is noise.