In ‘The Curse,’ Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder Become Tragically Unsavory as Performative Philanthropists With Poor Plans
Showtime’s “The Curse” is one of those series that you can’t stop watching despite an increasing dislike of its lead characters. It is a stinging cringe-inducing satire about a particular kind of privileged operator in today’s world. With our culture so focused on inclusivity and representation, along with our obsession for personal advancements, there are also darkly funny personality types that take shape. Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder deliver one of this year’s best couples, who nearly defy the boundaries of fiction. They are the kind of characters you almost can’t make up, which is probably why creators Fielder and co-star Benny Safdie settled on a mockumentary approach for the format. It’s a major strength to say these 10 episodes shine with pure, painful awkwardness.
The series opens with the very texture of behind the scenes footage of a documentary in the making. Fielder plays Asher Siegel, a New Mexico local who has conceived a reality show with architect wife Whitney (Stone). A first reading of the title will inspire a wince, “Flipanthropy.” The idea is that a film crew follows the couple as they work to build energy-saving homes supposedly meant to boost the economy and help the community. Heading the crew is their producer, Dougie Schecter (Safdie). Soon enough the couple runs into issues involving environmental concerns, local government requirements and the skepticism of the local community, especially Native Americans who are used to the fake promises of outsiders. Along with the reckless Dougie, it becomes glaringly apparent that any ally spirit or social concerns being used to promote the series take a backseat to the basic impulses of greed and self-aggrandizement.
“The Curse” is one of the year’s most merciless dramedies. Grounded satire is propelled by performances that dare us to keep following characters stripped to their most unsavory, ultimately human, selves. Asher and Whitney are well-written takes on those who tap into the zeitgeist and might even seriously consider themselves allies or social justice warriors. Yet, they are clueless or just cynical about their own hypocrisies. Dougie gets Asher to look generous on camera by giving a young Black girl named Nala (Hikmah Warsame) money, though he only has $100 in cash. After the taping is finished, Asher asks Nala for the money back and insists he’s going to get some change from inside a store. Nala understandably doesn’t buy it and puts a curse on Asher, which is how the show gets its title. The irony is that Asher and Whitney are unaware of how much they are cursing themselves.
By taking on the tone of a mockumentary, everything feels quite stark but it also allows for the series’ story to develop as we observe the characters get into pitiful or outrageous situations involving New Mexico’s gambling scene or the artsy corners of Santa Fe. Their condescension toward low-income locals is so subtle it feels even more disgusting. Whitney clearly fakes friendship to a Native American artist in order to get her art in the show. Or even worse, she truly thinks she’s being a friend without realizing the manipulative nature of the situation. She even concocts a contract for buyers of the new homes regarding how much of an ally they are. Whitney is clearly processing her own internal traumas stemming from having slumlord parents. The dynamic between Asher and Dougie also has its own, odd scars considering Dougie was Asher’s bully during Jewish summer camp. Safdie, who was great this past summer in “Oppenheimer,” is nearly unrecognizable beneath the long hair and beard of a stereotypical L.A. camera bro. He’s also the most honest character, cheerfully fueling crises in order to get compelling footage and shamelessly feeling pleased when passing a breathalyzer test.
Nathan Fielder also grows here magnificently as a performer. Known for his work on “The Disaster Artist,” “The Rehearsal,” and “Nathan for You,” he has mastered looking uncomfortable all the time on camera, like a twitching guilty conscience who can’t stop himself from doing the wrong thing. Asher’s excuse could be that the home project is really Whitney’s brainchild, but he keeps following her into the abyss even as it becomes clearer they don’t get this community at all, or the challenges involved in altering it. In a virtuoso scene of cringe comedy, Asher gets kicked out of a class for making jokes about his penis size. He’s the perfect counter to Emma Stone’s Whitney, who has a firmer, focused attitude shaped by the desire to go against her upbringing. Never do we doubt that the actors are probably basing their choices on so many people they, and we, have surely met.
You can’t really tag Asher and Whitney as “evil.” Their attitude is closer to the rich who claim to stand against bigotry and elitism but who wouldn’t be happy with radical measures to alleviate poverty. Whitney and Asher sincerely believe their plan will serve them while “helping” the underdeveloped communities where they ride in with Dougie’s camera crew. That form of lack of self-awareness might even make them more dangerous. “The Curse” engrosses through a combination of keen acting, writing that doesn’t hold back and knowing how to hit the funny bone without mercy. Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing at such a scenario, but in a world going increasingly mad, we might have no other choice.
“The Curse” season one begins streaming Nov. 10 on Paramount+ and airs Nov. 12 on Showtime, with new episodes premiering Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.