Extravagant performances save Cruella

It’s a testament to Emma Stone’s skill that she can make you think you need something that you don’t have.

It’s also a practical skill for people who work in sales, but at some level every performance is sales work. In “Cruella,” in theaters and streaming on Disney + with Premier Access Friday, Stone is given a prime role to feast on, and she does. Boy, she sells it.

There is a larger question of whether the film should exist. Despite Socrates’ wisdom, not all lives need to be examined. In “The Library,” one of the greatest episodes of “Seinfeld,” a library cop berates Jerry for his flippant attitude towards a long-awaited book.

The hilarious cop begins to declaim at the librarians, saying he remembers when “the librarian was a much older woman” and “we knew nothing about her private life. We didn’t want to know anything about his private life.

I feel the same about Cruella de Vil. She’s one of the best villains of all time, certainly in the Disney movies. She is absurdly loathsome in “101 Dalmatians”, wanting to kill and skin Dalmatian puppies so that their fur makes a coat. It’s crazy, especially in a children’s movie. This is the kind of evil that exists as a force of nature.

We didn’t know what made her mean. We didn’t want to know what made her mean.

Well, now we’re doing it. “CruellaIs the origin story of a villain. If anyone has to say it, it’s good to be Stone, with warm help from Emma Thompson. Director Craig Gillespie’s movie is everywhere – it’s 2 hours and 14 minutes, and you feel each one. And everything is turned up to maximum volume – the performances, the sets, the costumes.

Oh, the costumes. They’re stunning, both a character and some of the supporting cast. Fashion as a weapon is an interesting avenue to explore.

Cruella was born Estella. She is a free-spirited child, always struggling at school. Events conspire to leave her alone in the streets of London. (More details would spoil things.) She meets Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), who aren’t yet the goofy henchmen they’ll become in “101 Dalmatians.” But neither are they geniuses.

Estella is, however, and she knows it. She does not willingly suffer fools and finds herself surrounded by them. Her dream is to be a fashion designer, to one day work for the baroness (Thompson), a kind of cold heart who would be at home in “The Devil Wears Prada”. It is not a question of if, but when.

Again, it’s best to stay vague on the details here, but Estella ends up working for the Baroness, who has an aversion to credit sharing. The experience brings out the dark side of Estella, the other half of her personality that she mostly kept a secret: Cruella.

Cruella continues to work with Jasper and Horace, but she is the boss and her methods begin to alienate them. She also enlists Artie (John McCrea), who owns a clothing store. Guerrilla fashion pop-ups designed by Cruella are gaining media attention, including that of journalist Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who went to school with Estella as a child. Their relationship is not undermined for many. Too much is happening and the film rarely slows down to get too close to anything. Mark Strong, as John the Valet, is also being courted in the character development department. Luckily, Strong is such a compelling actor that you follow anyway.

Speaking of convincing, Thompson gives the Baroness an icy arrogance that is a bit of a note but also satisfying and fun to watch. She’s so good overall, able to grab your attention no matter what she does. Here she does a lot.

Not as much as Stone, however. This role is an actor’s dream: you can explore a character’s duality in a not only theoretical way. Stone is more than capable of such a feat. But there is no doubt that Cruella is more interesting than Estella. She’s the reason we’re here after all. The scenes of Estella are therefore less exciting and lively than those of Cruella. In the first, she largely cedes the canvas to Thompson who, it must be said, knows what to do with it.

But when she plays Cruella, Stone is definitely in charge. It’s a performance of bravery, filled with a crackling energy that never turns into a parody. That’s what saves him. Stone makes Cruella a believable character – if not relatable, at least recognizable.

I’m still not convinced the world needs to know why Cruella got bad. I like to think of her as a fully trained villain from the start. But again, it’s kind of a sales job. And reluctantly, thanks to Stone and Thompson, I buy.

“Cruella”

Three stars

on four stars

Classified PG-13; violence, thematic elements

2 hours, 14 minutes

In theaters and also available through Disney + Premier Access


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