Nathan Fielder, a Jewish comedian and actor, has established himself as someone who can get laughs and serious praise; in “Nathan For You” he ineptly attempted to help people, and “The Rehearsal,” where he blurred the lines between scripted and reality TV.
His new show, “The Curse” (Paramount+/Showtime), created with Jewish director and actor Benny Safdie (who was excellent as a Jewish physicist Edward Teller in “Oppenheimer”) is both brilliant and disturbing.
Fielder and Emma Stone (who brings her sly intelligence and glamor to the project) star as Asher and Whitney Siegel, a couple who are trying to sell HGTV a show about selling eco-friendly houses in a small New Mexico town that abuts tribal land. Whitney, who has converted to Judaism, designs “passive houses” that diminish the owner’s impact on the environment. In the first of 10 episodes, Asher has a meltdown when a journalist brings up that Whitney’s father, a Santa Fe slumlord.
The early episodes are tough going: Asher’s wealthy father-in-law, Paul (Corbin Bernsen), urinates on tomato plants while he jokes with Ash about their less-than-impressive endowment. And when we see Asher and Whitney kind of have sex, it’s so uncomfortable and bizarre (she yells the name “Steven”) many might not go on to the second episode. There’s also Asher’s friend Dougie Schechter who is directing their show and who feels guilt over his wife’s death as he was largely responsible for it.
In the community of Espanola, the couple claims to care about the people, but many questions arise. Asher is filmed giving a $100 bill to a young beggar girl (so he looks good), but when the camera is off, he then takes the money back, prompting her to declare that she curses him. At first, he doesn’t believe she has the power to harm him, but eventually he does. In a later episode, he can’t figure out how she correctly guesses how many nails he has in his fist, he squeezes the nails so hard he draws blood, which looks like a stigmata. Barkhad Abdi, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a terrorist in “Captain Phillips,” is wonderful as her father, who is squatting in an abandoned home Asher and Whitney bought.
Fielder, like Larry David and Sacha Baron Cohen, enjoys making the audience cringe. In the first episode, Dougie tosses water on a grandmother, not caring she is dying of cancer, but wanting to make it look like she is crying tears of joy because Asher and Whitney have given her son a job at a coffee shop they’ve opened in town.
The beauty of “The Curse” is twofold: We see Asher and Whitney lying on camera and to each other and we gradually detest them, and we ponder what the point of the show is.
The finale, which begins with Whitney waking up in bed and Asher waking up in a position not possible by the modern laws of science, gives us many clues. “The Curse” is a condemnation of people who claim to care about the environment but really don’t. And in the upscale (and always empty) jeans store Asher and Whitney have opened, after a local is arrested for shoplifting, in an ill-thought out plan to not antagonize the people of Espanola, she tells the cashier to charge the jeans to her credit card rather than call the police. When the bill ends up being about $14,000, she admits to Asher that it’s too much! Whitney can’t understand how an artist who couldn’t sell enough quit being artist and got featured in the New York Times. And of course, there’s a critique of social media/television where things are curated to look a certain way and not true to reality. There’s also an indictment of how white America has treated Native Americans.
Is the real “curse” that in order to not be boring, we have no idea what the real naked truth is? Is everyone always acting in public and “performing?” Fielder loves calling out hypocrisy. Whitney says she doesn’t want to sell to a 20 year-old whose father would pay for it, but her father has financed her business. She alsodoesn’t want to sell a home to a man with deeply conservative views. Is Fielder saying the media should calm down about calling conservatives loonies or less than?
In one episode, Asher tells his wife that Mel Brooks made “The Producers” and Jews were upset at first when the film came out as it mocked the Holocaust when it merely showed there was humor in the outrageousness of Hitler.
“I mean, sometimes you have to go to extreme lengths to make your point,” Asher tells her.
The show is extreme. Some will find it challenging to watch and there are times it will make you feel uncomfortable. Whether it is money, being seen as sexy, a person who cares about civil rights or the environment, there are forms or currency and people will want to make it seem like they have plenty of it in the bank when they may have less than they claim or none at all.
It’s possible to interpret the show’s ending as an attack on Christianity or all religion, but it may be more about performative virtue, the lack of consistency in what one claims to believe and what one actually does. And there’s the fact that Asher can’t explain the reason for lighting Shabbat candles, but all people of all religions have varying degrees of exposure and knowledge (Stone is at her best when attempting to recite the baruchas over the candles and challah). People will also wonder if the show mocks the stereotype of the nerdy Jewish man who doesn’t feel masculine enough or perpetuates it.
Fielder knows how to do this shtick. He is at his best in a scene where a man offers to help him with an ATM, in a Seinfeldian moment where he asks for his bank card PIN. Stone is exceptional as a beautiful, spoiled woman who assumes she will be a TV star, being at times seductive and sweet, other times angry and confused. Safdie is excellent as Dougie, a guy who one minute is chill and cool and the next minute looks like he may murder his date, himself or Asher. During the surreal finale, when the insane moments of the finale happen, his only concern is to have a drone get the footage. He wants conflict on the show and is happy to fake anything as long as it looks good. When Whitney has the idea to call the show “Green Queen” he thinks it’s great and that’s because we live in a world where there power in rhyming and slogans.
“The Curse” is a provocative series that deals with power. Who has it in a marriage? Who has it in the media? In every relationship, are we salespeople hoping that people still buy our words as meaningful? Does a promise nearly need to sound good? There’s no explanation of why Whitney married Asher, but there are many marriages that have no explanation..
Fielder’s humor is an acquired taste, but “The Curse” is a fitting comedy for a time that is so absurd.