Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is timeless. This is despite — but also, it’s uncomfortable to admit, because of — our collective reservations about its director. On the subjects of men and women and marriage and sexual violence and gaslighting and the terrifying vulnerabilities of bringing a child into the world, the movie is more than a little onto something. Its multiple proximities to the real lives of the people involved makes it that much harder to stomach. Its understanding of what it’s ultimately about — which isn’t the devil, not really — is hard to sit with because we can’t enforce that gap between art and artist you always hear about in cases like this. It’s a movie that evokes suspicion, even outright dread, and these things only play right into the hand of the movie.
Which makes it more ripe for an update from outside the text, revamping and reanimating the horrors it thrust into the world — not less so. But John Lee’s False Positive, a new gloss on the material starring Ilana Glazer (who also co-wrote it) and Justin Theroux, may as well be that child born of Rosemary: damned, ugly and misbegotten. It’s the product of a satirical ambition that lacks the wit to land any heady blows; the horror mastery to be even glancingly scary; the intellect to make those thrills invigoratingly existential; and the sense of humor to make it entertaining. What it is, is limp, dull, half-cocked — with a few good performances from good enough actors that hints at how a smarter movie might have worked.
Glazer and Theroux play Lucy and Adrian, the new film’s Farrow and Cassavetes. Instead of an oddball pair of neighbors, this time, we get charming-thus-suspect Pierce Brosnan as Dr. John Hindle, the answer to the couple’s fertility problems. It’s no spoiler to say that if he’s “the answer,” he’s the wrong answer. For Lucy, at least. But he promises a pregnancy and he delivers. From there, the rituals of discontent: a choice that must be made for the health of what turns out to be three fertilized embryos. For Lucy, some questions linger about whether a more holistic method would be preferable — questions that, in one funny but overtly self-congratulatory spin, get inverted into matters of class and racial privilege.
The movie tries. The suspicions mount, and the dark corners serve their purpose. A bloody pay-off certainly gets batshit enough to make it all almost worth the predictable routine that preceded it. But False Positive’s biggest hurdle isn’t Rosemary’s legacy, or the difficulties of updating a text that, watched today, already feels up to date. No, this new movie’s biggest battle is against itself, and it’s indecisive tone, the obviousness and relative toothlessness of its ideas, and the plain and unbearable fact that it’s simply got nothing on its mind beyond thinkpiece-headline feminism — truly, just the headline. The movie doesn’t seem to have done the reading.
It’s a shame to see mostly-good actors thrown under the wheels of a bus that doesn’t even know where it’s going. Lee, a veteran of Wonder Showzen and Adult Swim, is clearly familiar with atmospheric trademarks of the horror genre as it exists today; and, with Glazer, tries to make a little humorous something out of its abundance of nothing. It all builds up to a sequence of blood-smudged, violent images and actions that are practically begging to be iconic. You don’t cake Glazer’s face with that much blood and guts and bathe her in that much blindingly white light if you don’t intend to make all those hours in hair and makeup count for something. Unfortunately, it amounts to almost nothing.