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Pregnancy Horror 'False Positive' Doesn't Deliver

Lucy (Ilana Glazer) undergoes a procedure in Hulu's <em>False Positive</em>.
Lucy (Ilana Glazer) undergoes a procedure in Hulu's False Positive.

Hulu's horror film False Positive aches to evoke the sick, helpless, enveloping dread into which Mia Farrow's character so famously descended in Roman Polanski's 1968 classic Rosemary's Baby. And there's a lot it gets right, in the early going anyway, as it forces us to watch as the young, pregnant Lucy (Ilana Glazer) gets treated with polite but determined condescension by everyone around her.

While it's presenting itself as a tightly focused study in the cumulative impact of micro-aggressions, the specificity on display is satisfying: Lucy's handsome husband Adrian (Justin Theroux) slyly undercuts her feelings ("I'm sorry if I made you feel bad") even as he stares at her soulfully, the smarmy head doctor at the fancy fertility clinic (Pierce Brosnan) tut-tuts her concerns away and lightly tosses around words like "hysterical," the clinic's manically grinning head nurse (Gretchen Mol) keeps telling Lucy how very very lucky she is, and her vapid mom-to-be acquaintance Corgan (Sophie Bush) giggles as she chalks Lucy's every doubt up to "mommy brain." At the ad agency where Lucy seems a rising star, her boss (Josh Hamilton) cheers her on even as he expects her to be the one fetching lunch for everyone.

But the film — co-written by Glazer and her Broad City colleague John Lee, who directed — has bigger ambitions, which causes it to double down on the notions of patriarchal manipulation roiling just under the surface of its first reel. As the volume increases, the film's message distorts, and it starts grasping at too many different ideas that never cohere, abandoning subtext for wincingly on-the-nose exchanges that shatter the mood. Instead of letting us steep in Lucy's growing sense of paranoia (what's real, and what is she only imagining?), the film keeps getting broader and bigger and bloodier and gives away the whole game far too early.

It also, to its credit, gets faster. In an effort to evoke a dreamlike, disorienting effect, Lee and editor Jon Philpot start cutting from one scene to the next more rapidly. This narrative pile-up serves the plot, but it underserves the characters, as we get precious little time to watch Lucy and her husband Adrian, for example, simply share a space, or reveal anything about their lives together before the film joins them. On rare occasions when Glazer's Lucy reveals something about, for example, her mother, it comes as more of a surprise than it should, as the script affords her so little inner life, or history. The ultimate effect is to make Lucy seem like a character created solely to endure the trials the movie throws at her, instead of a round, believable human being in the world.

The film's ending reaches for something that exceeds its grasp, and the reveal of What's Really Going OnTM has been foreshadowed so early and so bluntly that the viewer will likely have long before dismissed it as a red herring. That it's not is disappointing, as is the villain's exposition-dump monologue, especially when you recall the restrained tension of those early scenes. False Positive begins as a film that traffics in subtle, trenchant observations about how the world treats women in general and pregnant women in particular. It ends as an overfamiliar, overblown example of how rote, conventional thrillers treat their bad guys.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.