False Positive plays like a modern riff on Rosemary’s Baby, but executes its updated vision perfunctorily and mostly dully.
Even though it’s sort of unfair to stack False Positive against Rosemary’s Baby, the movie is asking for it, and, unfortunately, the comparisons are not going to do it any favors. If you’re going to place a pregnant woman amongst a bunch of obvious gaslighters, and have her doubt her own sanity in the face of increasingly sinister circumstances, fearing for her life and that of her unborn child, it’s just something your film is going to have to tolerate. And while False Positive tries — not entirely unsuccessfully — to modernize some of its ideas and add some thoughtful seasoning, it’s also tremendously unexciting, rotely plotted, and, most egregiously, boasts a real letdown of a finale.
Lucy (Ilana Glazer, who also co-wrote) and her spouse Adrian (Justin Theroux, in the John Cassavetes role here) are wealthy and established New Yorkers. Her advertising career is blowing up, and he’s a successful surgeon. They’ve been trying to get pregnant for a couple of years without success, and so Adrian suggests — maybe even insists a little — that they visit Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan, having some fun here), an extremely prominent fertility doctor who also happens to be Adrian’s former teacher.
Things are, of course, uneasy from the start. Hindle’s office is populated by Stepford-ish nurses (headed up by Gretchen Mol, very creepy), and Hindle himself is just the right sort of probably-mad scientist, with a cool but over-friendly and paternalistic demeanor. This guy’s just gotta be up to something. Meanwhile, Lucy is surrounded on all sides by a culture that seems to subtly weaponize her own eventual pregnancy against her. The other expecting women in her social circle — who all, tellingly, experienced varying degrees of difficulty conceiving — seem unsettlingly only identified with the state of being pregnant, talking about things like “Mommy Brain” and “Mommy Makeovers” in — again, of course — the most off-putting and ghoulish way possible. At work, a major account is handed over to a male co-worker (who makes sure to also note that she’s “glowing.”). And when medical complications finally arrive, well, you can imagine how that ratchets up the tension.
Which is to say that it’s all pretty predictable, if not in fine detail, then certainly in broad stroke. This is very perfunctory stuff, and any success hinges on sticking a landing that False Positive simply doesn’t do. It’s interesting to add male-dominated work and medical environments to the litany of people trying to tell Lucy they know what’s best for her, but that tree never really gets shaken too hard. The “Is it real or is it Mommy Brain?” question about Lucy’s sanity can obviously only go one of two ways, and it would be thematically pretty disingenuous to turn out to be all in Mommy’s head. So, materially not much happens as you wait around to find out exactly how — and in what way — evil Dr. Hindle is.
Glazer does a nice job of playing the buttoned-up, aspirational woman watching everything she wants unravel, but — and I know it’s unfair— seeing her here makes one ache for a dose of black humor beyond gently mocking materialistic rich white moms. There’s a really welcome little grace note involving Lucy’s (and our) perception of a Black midwife, but it’s not enough to really upend the (mostly) thuddingly obvious text here. And director John Lee doesn’t help himself by staging everything in long, placid takes with a color palette that tends toward gloomy gray (although one moment in particular, as Lucy stares into a black void in her apartment, is genuinely effective). And then there’s the reveal, which is a real loser, coming along with a bit of bloody violence, but nothing too tasteless. It’s really perfectly okay to try to craft a more ideologically modern take on a classic — you’re just not allowed to make it this dull.
You can stream John Lee’s False Positive on Hulu beginning on June 25.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7.