Are Us and Life Sucks tethered together like doubles of each other?
It happened again: Entirely randomly and coincidentally, I saw two different narrative presentations (this time a film and a live play) just days apart, and despite their having no real connection, they merged in my brain to produce one review. The various parallels in the two stories, including matching themes and potential relevance to right-now America, were difficult to ignore and not compare, so I did – compare and contrast. First, I saw Us, the much-anticipated sophomore-effort horror film by Jordan Peele, which follows his much-celebrated first writer/director endeavor, Get Out. Next, I saw Life Sucks, a play that claims to be “sort of adapted from Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov,” (playing in NYC only until 4/20) also a much-anticipated sophomore-effort variation on Chekhov for contemporary American audiences, by Aaron Posner (with Wheelhouse director Jeff Wise), following Posner’s much-acclaimed Stupid Fucking Bird, an adaptation of Chekhov’s Seagull. As Us was percolating in my brain, and as I was noticing more and more articles discussing the supposedly mysterious themes and hidden meanings within this genre-bending movie, my experience at the genre-bending Life Sucks hit me hard, as an answer to all my doubts and emerging cynicism about Us.
Note: There are some “spoilers” in this article. But Helen Highly suggests that if Peele wants to play in the philosophical Big Leagues, discussing archetypal relationships, then he needs to grow up and leave the notion of spoilers for lesser minds. Generations of people have known how all the Chekhov stories end, but that hasn’t yet stopped them from watching.
In the movie Us, Adelaide Wilson returns from the city to the beachfront home where she grew up, accompanied by her husband, son and daughter and planning to spend time with old friends. Haunted by a traumatic experience from the past, Adelaide grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen that will threaten the safe, docile, middle-class lives of her family. Her worst fears soon become a reality, when four masked strangers descend upon the house. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them and is harboring some long-buried resentments about power inequities and secret yearnings. Each family member must face off against their murderous other-selves, who are figuratively and sometimes literally “tethered” to them. It’s the quintessential us vs them scenario, where the threat from others truly comes from ourselves. Thus, in keeping with the classic horror genre, the danger is coming from inside. In the end, there is a parting between us and them, but the future is uncertain.
In Life Sucks, an urban professor (Austin Pendleton) returns to the country home where he grew up, accompanied by his beautiful young wife. They descend upon the house that contains the long-ignored family and friends he left behind. Haunted by a family history of power inequities, repressed resentments, and secret yearnings, the characters experience increasing concern that something bad is going to threaten their complacent, docile, middle-class lives. Their worst fears soon become a reality as they each are confronted by the images of themselves that they project onto others, and they are forced to face their own regrets as mirrored in the seeming success of those most closely connected to them. Denial has been living in the basement and accountability has come to call. Posner has taken Chekhov’s traditional “suffering is beautiful” stance and given it some edge, and a pointed opinion: We are our own worst enemies. In the end, there is a parting between us and them, but the future is uncertain.
Do the two sound similar? Yeah. Dualities. Opposites that create and destroy each other. The way that people are tethered to their darker selves, both personally and as a society. Who is the real “us” – the people we feel we are inside (our hurts, our hopes, our dreams) or the people others perceive us to be (selfish, ugly, threatening)? What happens when our worst selves are unleashed? In us vs them, who is truly to blame and who is the victim? Who gets to walk away a hero, and at what cost to others?
The real question is this: Would you rather explore these philosophical quandaries within a bloody battle with speechless creatures from a subterranean world or over tea and vodka with articulate intellectuals as they stroll through gardens and play piano in their living room? Box office sales would surely indicate that most would prefer the former. But Helen Highly prefers the latter. (And for the sake of total accuracy, I note that Posner changes the traditional Chekhovian beverage from vodka to rum and coke, as part of his modernization of the play – a small detail that I would have preferred to remain traditional.)
My immediate reaction to Us was extreme disappointment, as I had adored Get Out and would have been happy to see it win an Oscar for Best Picture. But this new movie is a relentlessly violent and bloody slasher flick, where the crude brutality overwhelms whatever finesse, imagination, or meaningful messaging it may contain. Peele gave quite a few interviews explaining his film, after-the-fact, and many an article was written deciphering the riddle-like significance of the film. But whatever nuanced complexities might have been in Peele’s head didn’t make it to the screen, and certainly didn’t make it into my head. And just like any joke, if you have to explain it afterward, that means it didn’t really work.
Even when Peele’s often heavy-handed metaphors do scream about their social or psychological significance, I just didn’t care, because I didn’t want to have to sit through another kill-fest scene in order to grasp his laborious, clumsy philosophizing. Is there more ironic significance to be found if one swims through all the blood to reach it? Maybe. But when I saw Life Sucks, it was profoundly and unequivocally clear that Chekhov is and always will be a master writer and philosopher, no matter how much contemporary silliness is thrown at his work, while Peele is still very much a newbie, and this film does not earn the “homework” afterward to try to make sense of his mess. Kudos to Peele for his commanding first film, and he certainly should keep working, but Helen Highly suggests that those watching keep proper perspective and reserve their highest praise for those who truly deserve it. Aaron Posner deserves it.
Posner brings Chekhov out from the dusty past and makes him as fresh and relevant to contemporary life as Jordan Peele wishes he were. And director Jeff Wise seems to work in perfect partnership with Posner, delivering an audacious, immensely entertaining production that mingles mirth and angst with shock-and-awe in ways that portray life’s greatest dilemmas and despairs while ultimately sending the audience from the theater feeling strangely uplifted despite their newly activated personal pain.
It’s amazing how a few surprise gunshots that miss their targets and draw no blood can be as alarming and powerful as countless bloody murders. But what’s it all about? Both the movie and the play have a lot on their minds – virtual prisms of contemplation.
Speaking of prisms, I’ll start with mirrors, which figure prominently in Us. There is a decrepit carnival house of mirrors (and later, fractured shards of mirrors) that reflect a frightened little girl, who sees – or imagines? – her darker double, an image that returns repeatedly throughout the film. That scared little girl grows up to be a troubled, bourgeois wife and mother of two, who finally comes face-to-face with her “tethered” underworld double – her metaphysical opposite, both played with extraordinary dexterity by Lupita Nyong’o.
Plus, there is a vanity/makeup mirror in which a bleeding, murderous doppelganger of another bourgeois housewife applies lipstick with ghoulish panache, which is perhaps the most entertaining part of the movie, thanks to a thrilling performance by Elisabeth Moss. This deranged opposite-monster gives the most heinous portrayal possible of the superficial, self-absorbed character she seeks to kill and replace. At this point, it’s certainly no spoiler to reveal that all the ordinary, petty, self-entitled, real-world characters each have a zombie-like double who seeks to destroy and replace them. Does this already sound like Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Ding ding ding: You win the prize.
Meanwhile, Life Sucks sticks to the old theatrical trick of characters acting as human mirrors of each other. There is a clever scene, amazing in its simple effectiveness, in which all the characters line up to face off against the bourgeois, self-absorbed, complaining, Vanya (played by Jeff Biehl), each asking in turn, “What, am I supposed to feel sorry for you?” and then detail their own under-the-surface pains and grievances, which sometimes serve as confessions as well. Posner has taken the underlying psychologies of his layered characters and turned them inside out, so that they directly speak their interior thoughts, and even explain their personal issues and social philosophies, and still the play does not get near the level of over-bearing, self-important obnoxiousness that runs through the movie Us.
What’s the most scary thing in Us? Your miserable, moaning, opposite-self, who is emotionally tethered to you, is coming to stab you to death with a giant pair of scissors. (Scissors are made of two identical halves that are attached to each other, and also represent a severing of unity: Get it?) What’s the most scary thing is Life Sucks? I asked the director, Jeff Wise.
He answered, “The scariest thing in life is our ability to delude ourselves. The characters in this play, like so many people, detach themselves from reality to avoid taking responsibility for themselves and the pain that brutal honesty would bring with it. And the more detached you are, the more vulnerable you are to reality making itself known to you. This is very scary – being so sure of something that is not real. And when the truth is made real to you, that’s terrifying. That’s when people have psychotic breaks.”
He continued, “Vanya is not happy about the decisions he has or has not made in his life. He thinks in an entitled way. He blames others. He blames society. He refuses to be accountable. And finally he starts lashing out in real and violent ways – the dissatisfied, angry part of himself who believes that life has been unfair to him. He brings a gun into the house. Now his fear has manifested in real danger. He has become toxic to his community. His unwillingness to confront his own struggle is dangerous to others. So, they must confront him.”
It’s the emotional confrontation that is terrifying. The other characters force Vanya to look at himself, as if in a mirror. But who needs a real mirror when you have the genius of Chekhov to depict the conflicts in our consciousness – the smashed glass between our egos and our ids? In fact, Posner interweaves sardonic humor with cutting truth so easily, you are able to watch that conflict – the confrontation between who we pretend to be and who we are afraid to be, and laugh at Vanya’s and our own tortured psyches. Posner doesn’t need absurd giant scissors; he has language.
Helen suggests that when Vanya’s seething resentment peaks, and he attempts to shoot and kill his better-than-him brother, he is attempting to tear the same type of tether to their better-halves that the ghouls in Us so viciously resent. In some ways, it’s a struggle to own ourselves and a question about free will. Can Vanya be the person he wants to be or is he doomed by his denial of who he truly is – his jealousy, his guilt, his weaknesses? Can Adelaide ever truly free herself from her ugly underground double? And which one of her double-selves most deserves the daylight; which one is the real one? It seems odd that these two very-different stories both grapple with the same questions. Are Us and Life Sucks tethered together like combating doubles of each other? If so, I think clearly that Us is the stupid zombie and Life Sucks is the smart, successful half, but it is Chekhov who walks away the winner.
There is another pair of tethered characters in Life Sucks that merits mention. Vanya’s niece, Sonia (Kimberly Chatterjee), is homely, hard-working, unsophisticated, and sexually “invisble,” especially to the man she loves — Dr. Aster (Michael Schantz). In contrast, there is her father’s beautiful, alluring. worldly wife, Ella (Nadia Bowers), who receives unwanted romantic overtures from every man within wishing distance, especially from her brother-in-law Vanya, and also, painfully, from Dr. Aster — the man Sonia believes should rightfully love her. There is a wonderful heart-to-heart scene between the two women, in which they confront each other’s (and their own) jealousies and failures and reflect on how each possesses much of what the other wants. Their late-night drunken dialogue has a charm that is both solemn and giddy. It’s a true, heart-wrenching joy to watch, and far out-classes any Jordan Peele scene of two, female opposites literally ripping each other’s hearts out.
In Get Out, Peele was more effective at integrating comedy into the tragedy than he is in Us. But Life Sucks reaches moments of outright hilarity, although it is not quite as tight and astute as Stupid Fucking Bird. Neither writer has achieved the greatness of their first efforts, but both remain promising young artists who are contributing to our national discourse on personal and societal responsibility as we move from the “old order” to the “new order,” or at least they’re making the attempt. At a time when immigration has become a national emergency in our country, they are dealing with issues of outsiders vs insiders, us vs them (within ourselves and within society), and blame vs responsibility. That’s the wonder of art – to make us think while we are entertained.
Both stories have a moral seriousness and earnest intensity dotted with amusing pop-culture references. In Us, we get to see an Amazon-Alexa-like voice-operated music player get splattered with blood as it plays “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys (a song from 1966). In Life Sucks, we get to hear the Pickles character sing “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” by the Beatles (a song from 1968). We also get to hear Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (1975). The lyrics seem at home in Life Sucks but would have fit just as well in Us:
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.
Okay, maybe that’s me showing my age. I do agree with other critics who have applauded Jordan Peele’s savvy exploitation of how tethered we are to pop music. See this article by Micah Peters at The Ringer for more on that.
Peele aims to be more overtly political in his story, but… his 1980’s-era Hands Across America tie-in reads more nostalgic than meaningful. I think he gets himself too twisted up between Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit references and homeless guys with Bible verses written on their foreheads to really put together anything resembling an intellectually viable political thesis; he’s made a mediocre, psychological-thriller / slasher-film combo with some archetypal undertones and enough symbolic details to let anybody read anything they want into the meaning of it all. It is generous to include his movie in any real philosophical discussion, but he does seem to be thinking about things; maybe next time he’ll express some real ideas.
Posner and Wise’s effort is much stronger and more emotionally gripping. Let’s face it; no one can touch Chekhov when it comes to existential angst and human complexity. It’s worth noting that Posner does squarely place the setting in the United States but is vague about the date, although there is an Exxon reference at one point. So it seems both stories see something significant about America in the 1980s, while they also speak to a contemporary audience.
I am left with questions: Are we our own worst enemies? Does life really suck? And if it doesn’t suck, what does it do?
Life staggers. It confounds. It rages. And it yearns. Life is beautiful and Life Sucks.
Go see the play. Skip the movie.