When Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, writer David E. Kelley, and friends all came together to make the first season of Big Little Lies, it was a television event, and one where the quality lived up to the star power in front of and behind the camera. Little of what anyone in the group has done since then — including the unnecessary second season — has lived up to that, though those various projects often can’t help but evoke Lies.
For Witherspoon, it was this spring’s Little Fires Everywhere, which failed to play off her familiar screen persona nearly as smartly as Lies did. For Kidman and Kelley, it’s a reunion on The Undoing. The sluggish, six-part HBO thriller (adapted from the novel You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz) stars Kidman as Grace Fraser, a wealthy Manhattan therapist whose life falls apart after her pediatric oncologist husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) first goes missing, and then is accused of murdering the mother of a boy from their son’s private school.
We’re on the East Coast this time, and Kidman is playing the wise and seemingly all-knowing shrink, rather than a patient like she did for her last collaboration with Kelley. But the overall shape of the two projects is wearyingly similar. There’s a picture-perfect husband who in private has many dark secrets. There are rich private-school moms oblivious to how the 99 Percent lives. (One of the other moms suggests that, because the murder victim in question was Latinx — though she is played by Italian actress Matilda De Angelis — the crime must have been cartel-related.) And while Kidman gets to start off in a far more relaxed mode than we’re used to seeing her(*), she soon has ample opportunity to cry, cower in fear, or outright melt down over the horrific turns her life keeps taking.
(*) Kidman in general gravitates towards darker parts that challenge her to show off her range. When you have a range like hers, it’s understandable. But before the murder mystery plot kicks in, she and Grant are so at ease with one another it made me wish to see them co-star in a more light-hearted project that just takes advantage of their star wattage. Or, at least, for the third Paddington film to unite the villains that they respectively played in the first two. (Related: You could watch the absolutely perfect Paddington 2 three times in the span it will take you to watch all of The Undoing. I might recommend just doing that.)
With the exception of the way director Susanne Bier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shoot Manhattan itself through a slight haze, lending an unnervingly off tone to the proceedings, it’s all extremely rote, like an expanded version of the mid-budget Nineties movie that would have starred Kidman and Grant at their respective heights of celebrity. (Back then, Andy Garcia might have played Joe Mendoza, the enigmatic NYPD detective trying to find Jonathan; here, it’s Edgar Ramirez.) It’s watchable on talent alone, for the real estate and wardrobe porn (whatever her other problems, Grace has some fantastic coats), and for occasional flourishes like Donald Sutherland, as Grace’s patrician father Franklin, monologuing about the different types of cocksuckers. But the whole thing feels clichéd and hollow — a hospital colleague says of Jonathan, “It’s like he never got the god complex memo” — as if Kelley had used up whatever remaining insights he had about the secrets spouses keep from one another, and the privileges and pitfalls of being fabulously rich, on the last project he did with Kidman.
Big Little Lies was such a career-redefining work for almost everyone involved, it’s hard to blame them for chasing those elements again and again. Kidman and Kelley are already set to re-team on Nine Perfect Strangers, yet another project adapted from Lies author Liane Moriarty. Maybe after that, it would be best if everybody tried something a bit different.
The Undoing premieres October 25th on HBO. I’ve seen the first five of six episodes.