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Monday, December 05, 2022

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant star opposite in new HBO mystery "The Undoing," which might be a simple solve but still a solid watch. 

'The Undoing' is a simple mystery to solve, but that doesn’t make it any less watchable

A few weeks ago, I told you Nicole Kidman would keep me around purely out of the fact that I needed a tight-laced mystery in my life as we approach another stretch of stay-at-home orders.

And while what we’ve gotten from the six-episode miniseries isn’t perfect and feels a bit repetitive in the early goings, it manages to find enough ways remain a fun thrill ride nonetheless. 

“The Undoing” stars Nicole as Grace Fraser, a psychotherapist and wealthy socialite who seemingly has everything a person could ever want among a hyper-realistic, Manhattan fantasy world that feels more foreign than ever. There’s the infallible love of her husband and prominent oncologist Jonathan, played by the always effervescent Hugh Grant (“Four Weddings”), a growing list of prospective clients who want her erudite insights on how to improve their struggling lives, and a gifted young son, played by talented up and comer Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”, “Honey Boy”) who attends and excels at Reardon Academy, one of the most renowned private schools in New York City. Without as much as a single pot out of place, Grace appears to be living on top of the world and doesn’t seem poised to come down from her upper-class perch anytime soon. 

Not without a gut-wrenching, seemingly endless crash landing, that is. 

Trouble begins when Elena Alves, a new mother to Reardon, arrives out of nowhere at a fundraiser committee and catches Grace’s attention from the moment they first meet. Unlike those who hold prestigious law careers or fret over their husband’s laundry list of ineptitudes, Elena is an artist and — stop me if you’ve heard this before — “outsider” who struggles to fit in, and after a few encounters begins to quite literally reveal herself in uncomfortable manner that clashes with the polished nature Grace possesses. Upon a final conversation the evening of the fundraiser, Elena is found brutally murdered at her studio by her son the next day — beginning the unraveling of Grace’s reputation, marriage and mind as Jonathan is chosen as lead suspect. 

Written and produced by David E. Kelley, the man behind “Big Little Lies”, and directed by Susanne Bier (“Bird Box”), “Undoing” feels like another season of the former’s previous show for the flagship network — the same domestic murder mystery elements that garnered many rewards with a star-studded ensemble just a few years ago but transports the setting and names to the opposite coast for a more refined tone than the sunny beaches of Monterrey, California ever could. Story comparisons — ranging from the conflict between a rigid status hierarchy and alienating newcomer who threatens the social order, to underlying animosity amongst the marriages of many — are inevitable and strain through the early moments of the pilot, but quickly pick up the pace as viewers realize that something more deceitful is at play in this bloody incident.

As the investigation unfolds, Grace’s confusion about the realities of her life grow blurrier and blurrier as more devastating details are revealed to her — throwing her through endless loops of uncertainty that Bier effectually frames with bewildering insert shots and a pulse-pounding score that consistently keeps audiences waiting as the dominos continue to fall. Tilting the lens during tense interrogation scenes in New York City police stations and psychotic episodes in Central Park to illustrate the unspoken acting abilities Kidman possesses in her eyes alone, her direction ramps up the mental aspect that “Lies” never delivered and keeps you invested despite familiar faces.

Not to be outdone by Bier and Kidman working together to bring the heightened paranoia beyond what Kelley’s formulaic teleplay occasionally fails to provide, a pair of powerful turns from both Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland (“The Hunger Games”) as Grace’s father Franklin manage to keep viewers invested, even if they do figure out the inevitable twist in early episodes. 

Grant, revealed to be a much different person than initially believed in the opening moments, twists the inherent sense of sarcasm that made him a household name ever so slightly towards the devilish to portray an honorable man whose made many mistakes in his past, while Sutherland provides every fiber of his naturally sophisticated — and incredibly intimidating — nature to the role of an immensely wealthy and powerful father who will do anything to see his daughter and grandson survive this nightmarish situation. If corners were cut at all, it wasn’t in the casting, as each at home among the impossibly rich and impossibly screwed in Kelley’s tale. 

Once you start to connect the dots behind who is secretly the cause of Elena’s bludgeoning, it’s fairly easy to see where the train tracks are headed here. While I — obviously — won’t give away who this slayer might be, “Undoing” is still worthy of following along, purely for the sights and sounds of some heavy hitters and weekly reveals that will fill you up until Thanksgiving arrives. Predictable is never bad in the world we’re living in, and Kidman delivers upon that principle here.  

You can find the first four episodes of “The Undoing” streaming right now on HBO 

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