Movie Curiosities: False Positive

False Positive was directed by John Lee, who also co-wrote and co-produced the picture alongside Ilana Glazer. If that last name sounds familiar, Glazer is a prominent up-and-coming comedian in film and TV, most notably as the co-creator of “Broad City”. As for Lee, he was responsible for directing numerous episodes of “Broad City”, in addition to his involvement with several shows on Adult Swim. This is Lee’s second feature as a director after Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, the 2016 Netflix attempt at reviving the titular character.

By any metric, this is a highly unusual pedigree for a horror film. Then again, Jordan Peele was a comedian of roughly comparable stature when he branched out into horror, and look how that ended up. For that matter, John Krasinski came up as a comedy actor and I don’t think he had any horror on his CV until he knocked A Quiet Place out of the park. So let’s see what we’ve got here.

Our premise begins with Adrian and Lucia “Lucy” Martin, respectively played by Justin Theroux and Ilana Glazer herself. They’re a married couple who’ve been trying and failing to conceive for the past two years. Luckily, one of Adrian’s former teachers is now among the top five fertility specialists in the world. Enter Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan) and his head nurse, Dawn (Gretchen Mol).

(Side note: For those who are wondering, principal photography began in April 2019. Glazer announced her first pregnancy two years later, in March 2021.)

The good news is, Hindle’s new experimental procedure is a success and Lucy gets pregnant. The bad news is, she’s pregnant with triplets — twin boys and a female singlet. And with Lucy’s medical history (Remember, it took Herculean efforts just to get her knocked up in the first place.), there’s a very real chance that she can’t safely deliver all three. Thus Lucy and Adrian are forced to either choose a fetus to terminate (“selective reduction”, to use the medical term), or move ahead and attempt to deliver all three.

And remember, this is a horror movie. Kinda.

The opening credits are accompanied by a wailing overture made in blatant imitation of Danny Elfman’s works. (The film’s actual composers are Yair Elazar Glotman — late of Mandy — alongside newcomer Lucy Railton.) Shortly afterward, we get a shot perfectly bisected by the bathroom mirror, such that we’re watching the scene and its mirror image at the same time. And shortly after that, there’s a dreamlike shot in which Lucy stares directly into the camera while gloved hands float into and out of the frame.

In short, the surreal tone is set early, often, and aggressively. Even before anything remotely scary or disturbing takes place, mundane activities are portrayed in a disturbing way. On the one hand, I appreciate all the setup to make sure the film’s horror aspect doesn’t come entirely out of nowhere when it finally shows up. And it does indeed take a long time to show up. But on the other hand, this bull-headed lack of subtlety isn’t exactly conducive to a genuinely scary atmosphere.

Then again, this isn’t exactly a conventional horror film. There are no supernatural threats and no homicidal slashers. Yes, the premise lends itself to body horror, and there is indeed a fair bit of blood when things get going. But even then, this is a lot less early David Cronenberg (The Fly, Videodrome, etc.) and a lot more late David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars, etc.). This is very much a psychological thriller, using “mommy brain” and prepartum depression as conveniently plausible excuses for Lucy’s paranoia, hallucinations, erratic behavior, etc.

Of course the clearest and most obvious point of comparison is Get Out, in that both movies are about the white cis-hetero wealthy male patriarchy taken to psychotic extremes. But Get Out was about white people dominating the bodies of black people, and that film needed an outrageous sci-fi device to make the conceit work. By comparison, this movie is also about white men trying to dominate the body of our unwitting protagonist, and it’s about a woman trying to get pregnant. Without going into spoilery (and potentially triggering) details, you don’t exactly need sci-fi to make that work.

Consider that as we know it, gynecology is a relatively new science that didn’t come into prominence until about 150 years ago. In particular, J. Marion Sims — widely regarded as the father of modern gynecology — has become a highly controversial figure in recent years for his highly cruel and unethical experiments on unwitting female slaves. Modern gynecology is built on the work of men who literally controlled women’s bodies without their consent. How fucked up is that?

Moreover, we get a few glimpses into Lucy’s work life, as she’s apparently the only woman working at an advertising firm. Thus her colleagues ask for opinions from the token female, she only gets a shot at a big promotion after everyone else is overworked, she’s tasked with taking the lunch orders… casual sexism abounds. Lucy even has a boss (Greg, played by Josh Hamilton) who claims to have “some sort of women’s intuition thing going on.” And you can imagine how the company staffed entirely with self-serving faux-feminist blockheaded males responds to the news that their one female coworker is pregnant. And of course Lucy eventually has to choose between work and family.

Like I said, subtlety is not this movie’s strong point.

Glazer and Theroux are both charming enough as our leads, but they’ve both long since proven that they’re most effective as comedians. While I commend their valiant efforts to act against type, they’re both visibly straining against the limits of their comfort zones. By comparison, Pierce Brosnan has more practice at playing the charming and handsome old man who’s a little too creepily perfect to be true (see also: The World’s End). As for Gretchen Mol… really, she can do anything. Such a damn shame Mol gets so little work, she deserves so much better than she typically gets. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Zainab Jah, here tragically underutilized as the spiritual midwife who serves as a counterpoint to the cold paternal science of Dr. Hindle.

But the real weak link here is John Lee. I see what the filmmaker was going for and I respect his ambition. I appreciate that the film goes into all these bold and touchy subjects, and tries such a novel approach at examining them. Alas, when the rubber hits the road, the film’s complex ideas are forcibly reduced by overly simple execution. The film’s attempts at “horror” and “scares” prove to be ham-fisted and uninspired at best, and outright laughable at worst.

To wit, there are way, WAY too many scenes here in which the characters keep the lights off for no reason. Never mind that it would be in the characters’ best interests to turn on a light, never mind that it’s what any reasonable person would do in that scenario, never mind that there’s no given reason why turning on the lights isn’t an option, we have to keep the characters in total darkness because there’s apparently no other way to maintain the tension. It’s a threadbare and asinine hack move at this point.

I honestly think that in the hands of a more capable director with some degree of comfort in the horror genre, this could’ve been amazing. (To name a few examples, I’m literally salivating at the thought of this script in the hands of Jennifer Kent or Nia DaCosta.) But as it is, this is very clearly a horror movie made by a director with no idea of how to make a horror film. Moreover, I totally believe that this was the work of a director more comfortable with direct and razor-sharp comedy, as opposed to drawn-out psychological horror. The latter needs a more subtle kind of touch that the former doesn’t, and the film seems pitifully incapable of nuance where it’s most needed.

False Positive is a bold experiment, but a failed one. I have nothing but respect for filmmakers who tried to take on so many huge topics that nobody else really discusses, spinning them into a morally outraged work of horror was a clever step, and I can appreciate the urge to branch out and try a new genre. Alas, I’m sorry to say that the filmmakers were out of their depth with this one, with a reach that far exceeded their grasp. I can’t fault the filmmakers for trying to ape Get Out, as that’s a natural frame of reference and we could definitely use more socially conscious horror films. Too bad there’s only one Jordan Peele.

I commend John Lee and Ilana Glazer for the noble attempt, and I wish them all the best on their next effort. But I’m sorry I can’t recommend this one.

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