'The Curse' Review: Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder Amp Up the Cringe

‘The Curse’ Review: Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder Amp Up the Cringe

To witness Emma Stone’s latest leading role in a TV series, a gripping portrait of self-delusion on par with any of her Oscar-honored star turns, viewers will have to pay a hefty toll: They’ll have to sit through a predictably agonizing odyssey from two auteurs who’ve already mastered the art of making audiences squirm. Here, the creators combine their talents to reach new depths of discomfort.

Showtime series “The Curse” is a collaboration between Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie that draws from incidents in both men’s biographies. Safdie had developed an obsession with home renovation shows, while Fielder was inspired by an encounter with a stranger who claimed to have put a curse on him when he couldn’t give her any cash. (After a visit to a nearby ATM, the hex was withdrawn.) These fixations became the setting and inciting incident of “The Curse,” which stars Fielder and Stone as Asher and Whitney Siegel, a New Mexico couple attempting to turn their real estate business into a reality show. Safdie plays their scheming producer, Dougie.

“The Curse” is also a coming together of two shared sensibilities. Alongside his brother Josh, Safdie has directed a series of films (“Good Time,” “Uncut Gems”) centered on unsavory protagonists who drive their own undoing, often featuring first-time actors. For his part, Fielder has made a career of blurring the lines between reality and fiction through shows like “The Rehearsal” and “Nathan for You,” unraveling onion-like layers of alienation through his own, intentionally off-putting persona. “The Curse” opens new frontiers for each artist, bringing Fielder into scripted storytelling and Safdie into television, as well as away from New York, his hometown and preferred filming location. Its creators’ themes and M.O. are nonetheless familiar — a promise to fans, and a warning to the cringe-averse.

Originally announced as a half-hour comedy, “The Curse” instead unfolds like an hourlong drama over its 10-episode season. (Fielder directs seven of these installments, with brothers David and Nathan Zellner co-helming the remaining three.) Fielder’s previous work is compact and episodic, countering the excruciating spectacle of his stunts with consistent structure, small doses and a guiding voiceover. “The Curse” forces us to sit in the awkward silence as Asher and Whitney try to sell both the working-class community of Española (an actual small city outside Santa Fe) and the viewing public on their ultra-modern, eco-friendly homes.

An architect who builds mirrored, self-sufficient houses with a suspicious resemblance to the work of artist Doug Aitken, Whitney has constructed her entire identity in opposition to her parents (Constance Shulman and Corbin Bernsen), shameless capitalists who shrug off the label of “slumlord.” Whitney is convinced she can make money, win design awards, benefit the environment and help the local community, an untenable vision she’s recruited Asher to make work on the business side. But cracks quickly start to show in this telegenic facade. While filming the pilot, Asher and Dougie attempt to stage a heartwarming moment for the cameras by having Asher offer money to a child (Hikmah Warsame). When Asher retracts his gift once Dougie has the shot, his angry ex-beneficiary declares: “I curse you.”

For a professional comedian, Fielder is disturbingly good at creating congenitally unfunny characters. (At one point, Asher enrolls in a corporate comedy class as an unsuccessful bid to improve his on-camera appeal.) In “The Curse,” there’s no distancing mechanism that assures us Fielder, the performer, is simply doing a bit for our entertainment. We’re completely immersed in this fictional reality, one where Asher’s crippling social ineptitude is only magnified by his wife’s charisma. Movie stars have a mixed track record in their influx to TV, but Stone’s inherent charm makes for a pointed contrast with Fielder’s deliberate lack thereof. Whitney is a narcissistic monster in her own right, though she’s better at creating the illusion of empathy for the camera.

Completing this unholy trinity, Safdie sports a Tommy Wiseau-like wig as Dougie works to destabilize what’s already an unhealthy dynamic. (A sex scene in the premiere, preceded by a full-frontal shot of Fielder sporting a micropenis, illuminates the insecurity and lack of open communication dragging down a marriage that’s just a year old.) A former bully of Asher’s from Jewish summer camp, Dougie acts as a kind of Faustian figure, playing Asher and Whitney against each other in a bid to create the most compelling product possible. Whitney and Asher have bet their whole, over-leveraged house of cards — shockingly, the economics of chic designer homes in an under-resourced area don’t quite pencil out — on their show’s success, but Dougie, too, needs a win. Before the events of “The Curse,” a drunken car accident destroyed the producer’s personal and professional lives, a reckoning for which he still refuses to take responsibility.

Such intimate mind games among awful people play out against a backdrop of much broader social issues, from gentrification to Indigenous rights, brought up by Asher and Whitney’s work. In a sense, “The Curse” bridges the capitalist commentary of “Nathan for You,” which was to “Bar Rescue” what “The Curse” is to HGTV’s “Flip or Flop,” and the eavesdropping-on-therapy feel of “The Rehearsal.” Over time, and understandably, “The Curse” gravitates toward the personal; Fielder and Safdie have the opportunity to design their own showcase and draw on Stone’s talents in bringing their core trio to life. The question is whether you can stand to wait and see how the arrangement plays out. “The Curse” is undeniably effective at creating a mood, which means every compliment to the show also sounds like a criticism. The show is a study of exploitation at all levels that’s often painful to watch. Whether that’s a cue to tune in or stay far away is up to you.

The first episode of “The Curse” will premiere on Paramount+ on Nov. 10 and Showtime on Nov. 12, with subsequent episodes streaming weekly on Fridays and airing on Sundays.