It’s movie math: Take one pregnant woman, add a bunch of shady people, multiply by the natural anxiety that comes with bringing new life into the world, and voila, you’ve got a “Rosemary’s Baby” riff! But while John Lee’s “False Positive” may have seemed — at least initially, thanks to some well-made marketing materials — like some sort of millennial version of the classic horror effort, it doesn’t work on its own merits, let alone as a take on the 1968 feature. While the inevitable comparisons don’t help matters — and really, films about women who are pregnant and scared don’t need to automatically be compared to Roman Polanski’s film, certainly not anymore — its own faults are obvious even without the snappy parallels.
Trapped in some bizarre movie genre hinterland, wholly resistant to veering too far in any direction, this aimless film isn’t dark enough to be scary, funny enough to be a comedy, or smart enough to say anything about the many topics it seems to want to tackle.
Ambition and ideas aren’t in short supply in the film, written by Lee and star Ilana Glazer, who previously worked together on Glazer’s winning comedy series “Broad City.” Armed with a story initially conceived by Lee and author Alissa Nutting (whose “Made for Love” was recently adapted into a series), there is clearly a dark and biting story underneath what made it to the screen. You can feel it in the film’s earliest moments, which opens in media res (before flashing back to a surprisingly thin plot), as a bloodied and shellshocked Lucy (Glazer) wanders the streets, emergency lights painting her neighborhood red and blue, and a score from Yair Elazar Glotman and Lucy Railton goes from creepy to cute and back again.
“False Positive” at least succeeds at putting its audience ill at ease, and while that feeling will not abate over the course of its mercifully short 92-minute running time, it’s less the product of crafty filmmaking than innumerable baffling choices. Lucy and her husband Adrian (Justin Theroux) have been trying to get pregnant for two years, but despite Lucy’s go-for-broke attitude (she’s stopped drinking, for one), it doesn’t seem as if making a baby the old-fashioned way is going to pan out for them. Thankfully, doctor Adrian knows a guy, the best guy really, and he’s eager to trot off to the Hindle Women’s Center so that his old teacher Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan, who at least seems to be having fun) can impregnate Lucy with his new method of IVF.
Lucy doesn’t dig it. She’s written as a by-the-book gal, a real straight-shooter, but while these character elements are rife in the script, they never seem to surface in Glazer’s actual performance. You can’t really blame Lucy for her reaction, though, because the HWC just feels weird: It’s a bizarre open plan modern office staffed entirely by nurses in old-fashioned pink dresses (including Gretchen Mol as Dr. Hindle’s dedicated head nurse, Dawn). There’s a distinct lack of privacy even in the exam rooms, where Lucy is tossed up on a table with her nether bits exposed and facing the door, while Dr. Hindle (please, call him John!) even rolls up a mirror so she can check things out for herself. (There are many, many mirrors in the film, which mostly seem to address the dark lighting scheme from cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski.)
Still, it’s hard to deny Dr. Hindle’s methods, because soon Lucy is very pregnant, though that happy news comes with its own complications to consider. As Lucy’s belly grows, so does her paranoia, and while it’s clear there’s something weird going on with Dr. Hindle and even Adrian, “False Positive” never toes the line between the real and imaginary until it’s far too late. Misdirection abounds, from a series of strange nightmares to creepy visions of blood, but every “creepy” choice mostly registers as another cheap way to cover up a flagging narrative.
Hulu / screencap
Worse yet: there are plenty of intriguing threads to pull here, like that alleged doctor Adrian doesn’t seem know much about actual medicine, or the mysterious way that Lucy comes across a midwife (Zainab Jah) whose services she begins to fixate on, and why Lucy’s two best friends are so easily pushed aside in favor of the charming Corgan (Sophia Bush). None of that will ever amount to much, and while the film does offer plenty of explanations at its conclusion, they mostly feel cobbled together from other films and other stories, unable to be at all satisfying as part of the chintzy milieu on offer here.
Other choices rankle in their own way, again hinting at something far more clever lurking deep under the film’s surface. Glazer is so recognizable as a comedic talent that it’s hard to imagine that’s not meant to be capitalized on here, and the film’s limp jokes — including an entire subplot about how her boss (Josh Hamilton) is obsessed with fast casual restaurant Dig Inn — feel like “Broad City” throwaways. (The Dig Inn stuff also seems to tie into another under-explored facet of Lucy’s life: she’s a rising star at work, but as the only woman on staff, she’s still expected to be in charge of every lunch order.) Elsewhere, the chemistry and comfort between Glazer and Theroux never quite works, though it’s tough to ascertain if that’s meant to be part of the film’s tension (good luck holding out for a backstory on this odd couple) or is simply the product of regrettable casting choices.
Is “False Positive” really meant to send-up or riff on”Rosemary’s Baby”? Surely the cinematic world can (and should!) hold more films about women who are unmoored by pregnancy (and the way the world, especially its men, treat them while they are in such a “delicate” condition) that aren’t automatically compared to an unimpeachable classic. But even if one were to throw the movie math and the attendant expectations out the window, “False Positive” amounts to very little on its own, subtracting away every bit that could make it unique or compelling, ending entirely in the red.
“False Positive” premiered in the Spotlight Narrative section of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Hulu releases the film on its streaming platform on Friday, June 25.