Combustible Celluloid Review - Landscape with Invisible Hand (2023), Cory Finley, based on a novel by M.T. Anderson, Cory Finley, Asante Blackk, Tiffany Haddish, Kylie Rogers, Brooklynn MacKinzie, Josh Hamilton, Michael Gandolfini, William Jackson Harper, John Newberg, Tony Vogel, Christian Adam
Combustible Celluloid
With: Asante Blackk, Tiffany Haddish, Kylie Rogers, Brooklynn MacKinzie, Josh Hamilton, Michael Gandolfini, William Jackson Harper, John Newberg, Tony Vogel, Christian Adam
Written by: Cory Finley, based on a novel by M.T. Anderson
Directed by: Cory Finley
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief violent content
Running Time: 105
Date: 08/18/2023

Landscape with Invisible Hand (2023)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Vuvv Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Playwright-turned-filmmaker Cory Finley returns with another of his queasy delights, following his prickly debut Thoroughbreds and the dark comedy Bad Education. Landscape with Invisible Hand tells the story of a banal alien invasion, one with no battles or explosions, but also one that does not end as a utopia. Here, aliens are like bureaucrats, and the human race has ended up either struggling with a failing economy, or making lots of money while working depressing, menial jobs for alien bosses. (The unique aliens, the "Vuvv," are shaped like rectangular footstools and communicate by scraping their paw-like "paddles" together.)

The story focuses on Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), a painter. Finley cleverly gets a lot of exposition out of the way by showing a selection of Adam's canvases. Thanks to contributions from an absent father, Adam, his mother Beth (Tiffany Haddish), and younger sister Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie) manage to scrape by, even if they mostly eat icky cubes of manufactured food provided by alien technology. At school, Adam meets newcomer Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers), who has fallen on hard times. Adam invites her and her family — including her father (Josh Hamilton) and her caveman-like brother Hunter (Michael Gandolfini) — to stay with them.

Spending time together and becoming attracted to one another, Adam learns that aliens will pay for "broadcasts" of real-life relationships. They start their own broadcast, and the money begins rolling in. After a time, and some fighting over the broadcast itself, the couple are summoned to see an alien bureaucrat, and are informed that they are being sued for their inauthentic work. (They're not really in love, the alien claims.) Beth, who is an out-of-work lawyer, negotiates another solution. She will agree to "marry" one of the aliens for a time, so that they can study human domestic life. Meanwhile, the high school is shut down and students are told to do "virtual school" from home.

Having lost Chloe and with an alien in the house, Adam gets the idea to paint a giant mural on the side of his now-empty high school. This leads to a third act in which the aliens choose him to be an artist-in-residence, which includes a huge paycheck for his family. But this, of course, comes at a cost. Essentially, there are only two options for the humans in Landscape with Invisible Hand: stay true to one's self and struggle to get by, or live comfortably while selling your soul. The long-unemployed Beth is overjoyed to land a job in a soup restaurant, but we also meet a surgeon who makes five times his previous salary driving visitors in a golf cart to meet the alien boss.

This is the conflict most artists face, and perhaps Finley is struggling with it himself. (Witness all those makers of tiny indie movies that suddenly find themselves directing a Marvel movie.) But it can be translated across any lines. It seems rare that we as Americans are well-paid for jobs we love to do. Pride is an additional factor; Mr. Marsh winds up degrading himself so that he can take care of his kids. Perhaps Finley is suggesting that this is not OK, and that it does not necessarily have to be this way. Additionally, it's difficult not to read the aliens — who are said to lack empathy and the capacity for love — as the G.O.P., concerned mainly with wealth and uninterested in helping everyday Americans (especially Black ones like the Campbell family) get a leg up.

As shown in Thoroughbreds, Finley has a talent for turning his plot at right angles, sometimes jettisoning one thread and starting another, but still keeping a consistent tone. And his tone is frequently weird — with details of this futuristic, alien-infested world sprinkled casually throughout — keeping us a little off-balance, never too comfortable, and attentive to whatever odd thing comes next. He has admirable confidence, especially in choosing a long, awkward title and not revealing its meaning until the movie's final moments. (Hint: it's one of Adam's paintings.) He knows he's taking us for a ride, and he puts his faith squarely in the unexpected.

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