TV Review: NBC's 'Rosemary's Baby' is a missed opportunity
Try as I might, I can't feel like NBC's miniseries version of "Rosemary's Baby" is a disgrace.
I know that I should.
Roman Polanski's 1968 adaptation of Ira Levin's tightly-written suspense potboiler is a masterpiece on every level. It's disturbing and scary, which is why people remember it as a horror classic. But in certain places, it's also absolutely hilarious with a vein of dark humor that qualifies confidently as camp, but never jeopardizes the visceral tension. And that balance is perfectly captured through every performance, from Mia Farrow in the lead role, to John Cassavetes, Sidney Blackmer and the incomparable Ruth Gordon.
And every way in which Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" works, Agnieszka Holland's NBC adaptation falls short.
A review that says "NBC's 'Rosemary's Baby' is bad because Roman Polanski's 'Rosemary's Baby' is good" accomplishes nothing, even if it's both true and a tremendously efficient piece of criticism.
Despite all of the failings of the new "Rosemary's Baby," it's possible that I just have stricter standards for what constitutes a disgrace.
A disgrace is something that lingers around you forever.
It'll be a long time before Jonathan Rhys Meyers can do anything without me mentioning his trust-busting bloodsucker. Because NBC's "Dracula" was a disgrace.
Disgraces don't necessarily hold you back, because you can own a disgrace. George Clooney owns "Batman & Robin." Ben Affleck owns a solid decade of his resume. The punchlines haven't vanished, but it's all OK.
And when it comes to NBC's "Rosemary's Baby," I don't think anybody has been permanently tarnished.
Zoe Saldana is neither good nor bad in "Rosemary's Baby," but five years from now nobody will even remember it was a thing that she did.
Agnieszka Holland's resume is a mixture of very good TV -- "Treme," "The Wire" -- and an mixed bag of features, but "Rosemary's Baby" will just go down as something that she tried, even if it didn't work.
Patrick J. Adams, Carole Bouquet and Jason Isaacs? They all acquit themselves decently in "Rosemary's Baby" and I associate them all so strongly with other things -- even if, in Adams' case, it's just a really random SAG Award nomination -- that I can accept that they wanted to work in Paris for a few months, which isn't a crime.
I'm not holding "Rosemary's Baby" against anybody, even if it took up three hours of viewing time and yielded little more than a pleasant reminder that Paris is a lovely city.
No, it doesn't add to the legacy of the story, but Ira Levin did much more damage to that legacy with 1997's profoundly silly "Son of Rosemary" than anything writers James Wong and Scott Abbott could think to do here.
In fact, that's where NBC's "Rosemary's Baby" falls flat: It doesn't really think to do much of anything to Levin's book and Polanski's film. It's a missed opportunity on every intellectual level, while not approaching the technical proficiency of the first movie. So it's just nothing. The writing, direction and performances aren't laughable in any way, they're just bland and directionless.
I think curiosity might get some viewers tuning in for the first part of "Rosemary's Baby" on Sunday (May 11) night, but it just so happens that the very worst part of the entire miniseries is its structuring and so little happens in those first two hours, the only reason to tune back in for the conclusion on Thursday is to validate those first two hours. As a critic, I often watch the second half of things that aren't good just so that I can have closure on the experience. Viewers don't work the same way.
More specifics after the break...
In this version of the story, Guy (SAG Award Nominee Patrick J. Adams) and Rosemary (Zoe Saldana) are a loving couple who move to Paris. She's still vulnerable after a miscarriage, while he's a frustrated writer taking a one-year professorial gig, because there's nothing more depressing to an aspiring novelist than having to teach at a prestigious French university. Through a chance circumstance, they meet Margaux (Carole Bouquet) and Roman (Jason Isaacs) Castevet, a wealthy and mysterious couple who welcome Rosemary and Guy into their lives. Soon, Guy is advancing professionally and the couple has a new apartment in the Castavet's apartment complex, which has the intimidating name of La Chimere, but is so darned ritzy nobody's going to quibble about a couple mysterious deaths or that strange closet that's blocked by a dresser. Rosemary thinks it's a wee bit odd that the Castavets have become so involved in their life, and in her reproductive choices, but their old apartment really sucked, so she's willing to drink a few herbal smoothies in order to make nice.
And for the purposes of Part I of "Rosemary's Baby," that's all it's about. Granted that the title is a bit of a red herring to begin with, but only Abbot, Wong and a few NBC executives know why they thought it was a good idea to do a miniseries titled "Rosemary's Baby" and go a full two-hours, leaving viewers for four days with Rosemary's not even pregnant. For a solid two hours, "Rosemary's Baby" is the story of two Americans who don't like their small Parisian apartment, find a better one and agree that the neighbors are a bit clingy.
Now if that's an episode of "House Hunters: International," I'm totally comfortable with that outlay of time. Yes, the minuscule first apartment was within their budget and close to his work, but the locations and amenities of the second apartment absolutely made up for the history of Satanic rituals in the building.
Ideally, however, "Rosemary's Baby" is not an episode of "House Hunters: International," though certainly Holland and cinematographer Michel Amathieu are more comfortable with luxuriating in well-appointed interiors than suspense. Think of this as "Rosemary's Bay-Window With a View of the Eiffel Tower If You Look From The Right Angle" and maybe you have a better sense of what they're going for.
Nobody wants that. And I don't think if NBC had known this is what they were getting, they'd have ordered it. But how could an NBC development executive not have looked at the script for this project and realized that nothing of even minor significance happens over 90-ish pages. Granted, again, that Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" is also a slow burn, but you watch all 136 minutes of that "Rosemary" consecutively. You aren't being strung along for four days on certitude that if Jason Isaacs' character weren't evil, he wouldn't have that combination of smirk-and-daring.
Isaacs and Bouquet are actually the best reasons to watch this "Rosemary's Baby" and not just because they're better actors than Saldana and SAG Award Nominee Adams. They're also the primary deviation from the original text/movie, which featured Gordon and Blackmer as grandparental versions of the Casavets. Isaacs and Bouquet add a little sexual charge, so much so that "Rosemary's Baby" sometimes feels like an occult-fueled episode of "Swingtown." It's an interesting idea, but it's barely followed through on. Rosemary is presented with the choice between whiney SAG Award nominee Patrick J. Adams -- Not his fault, Guy is an impossible character -- and lusty French star Bouquet and the predictably suave and masculine Isaacs and she chooses... Cooking lessons with her bestie, played by Christina Cole. Curses, NBC and your standards for gauzy eroticism, or perhaps damn you Agnieszka Holland and your sense that shooting scenes through things -- blinds, grating, furniture -- is the best way to elicit every response from fear to arousal.
So "Rosemary's Baby" is at its most interesting when it offers the potential of a varied prurient menu, but it fails to live up to its potential.
Frankly, I'm not criticizing NBC's "Rosemary's Baby" for not doing things as well as the original movie. I'm criticizing for not taking many more liberties.
The bones of Levin's story are absolutely universal and could be transplanted to any location or any time, but the way Polanski fleshed it out is very much of-a-moment. From its sense of paranoia to its perspective on gender roles, the 1968 "Rosemary's Baby" is very, very 1968.
So when I heard NBC was doing a contemporary "Rosemary's Baby," I was perfectly willing to go along with it.
How are marital relations different in 2014? How does health care treat pregnant women differently in 2014? What are the reproductive options that exist in 2014 that were different in 1968. I'm talking differences in fertility treatments and neonatal care, but also the differences in a world post-Roe v. Wade. It's a different world now for an uncertain pregnant woman than it was in 1968. Make that part of the story. Please!
Abbott and Wong and Holland pay lip service to those ideas -- there's some use of ultrasound and Rosemary boldly declares she's making her own health choices at one point -- but it's not an important part of the text or the subtext and has no bearing on the plot.
OK, but what about the Parisian setting? What does it do? New York is integral to the original story, but there's no advantage New York has that Paris can't counter, right?
Mostly, Paris is there to produce a language barrier for Rosemary, to let her attend cooking classes at the Cordon Bleu and to allow the Eiffel Tower to pop up in either the foreground of deep background of practically every exterior shot. "Rosemary's Baby" does a terrific job of filming one very small corner of Paris. But if you think Paris is more than that stretch of the Seine between the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, your version of Paris is not being captured here. And short of one scene wandering in the Catacombs, little specific to Parisian history is allowed to infuse the journey Rosemary's taking.
And therein lies the most disappointing failure to deviate from the Levin/Polanski narrative: Rosemary's journey is exactly the same in 2014 as it was in 1968 and it's exactly the same when played by Zoe Saldana as when played by Mia Farrow. And I don't get how that could be the case. I understand that "Rosemary's Baby" wasn't adapted *for* Saldana. It was adapted for the biggest star NBC was able to secure and the "Avatar" and "Star Trek" veteran absolutely counted. But once Saldana was the choice, somebody had to take a week to answer a few questions.
Mia Farrow was 22 when she shot "Rosemary's Baby." Zoe Saldana was 35. Does it make a difference to have a Rosemary who is not old, but is older? Yes, Rosemary's has been given a prior miscarriage, but there's no sense of the duration of relationship between this Rosemary and Guy. To me, it means something. To the writers here, it does not.
Does it mean anything to have a Latina Rosemary? It doesn't need to. But it could. You can take Rosemary and assume that the character is identical no matter the background of the actress and that's fine, I guess. Or you could attempt to give her specificity based on upbringing and experience. The answer to this question was, "No, it didn't mean anything to have a Latina Rosemary."
Mia Farrow was the most waifish of '60s waifs. You would not think her Rosemary was capable of opening a pickle jar if she got a craving. Zoe Saldana is a trained dancer and an actress of sufficient physicality that she has been frequently cast in roles accentuating her strength and her potential to kick butt. "Rosemary's Baby" seems like it's one story if you have a docile Rosemary and it could be a different story if you have a Rosemary who might have some gumption. You would think that, right?
NBC's miniseries would not. It's mentioned that Rosemary had a past as a dancer. That's featured very briefly in one flashback. But it's meaningless.
It's absolutely Wong and Abbott and Holland's prerogative to say, "It's a good story, why change it?"
Similarly, it's my prerogative to say, "Why bother?" You've got all of these points from which it feels like "Rosemary's Baby" would be able to pivot and deviate. Why not follow those points of differentiation and then see how they could lead to the exact same place. Because I'm not saying, "Change the destination." I'm just saying, "Vary the journey."
Saldana, I'm reasonably convinced, could have done much more than what she's asked to do here. She's pretty and winsome when that's all that's asked and she freaks out acceptably when that's all that's asked. Production here was much too rushed for her to undergo any kind of real physical transformation in the second half of the story, but she handles the wan makeup and the bad haircut well. There's not enough of a character for her to inhabit, but what character there is is solidly played. Rosemary is a role that allows for the making of any number of interesting acting choices and I don't think Saldana has made any of those, but she also hasn't done anything misguided. This all just returns me to my initial point: Saldana has done nothing to disgrace herself here, but also very little to set herself apart. But "Rosemary's Baby" is four hours of TV that rests entirely on her shoulders and it's fine there. Saldana just could have also anchored a much better version of this same story.
If nothing happens in the first half of the miniseries, what happens in the second half is just disappointing because it's clear that a key piece of DNA is missing, whatever the strand is that tells you what things are disturbing. There's exactly one scene in the last two hours that might cause people to look away, but it's nothing more than a tame version of what "Hannibal" does on a weekly basis without any diminishing returns from repetition. It's here that I have to be disappointed with James Wong, because with his "X-Files" and "American Horror Story" and "Final Destination" credits, I know for a fact that he's more tapped into the primal things that freak us out than anything on display here. Left to his own devices, I know Wong would have done something better than this. Oh well.
I'm not going to tell you to steer away from "Rosemary's Baby." It's not good, but with the attractive cast and the attractive setting, it's generally watchable, if entirely unengaging. I'll just warn you that when you get the feeling after an hour that nothing has happened? You're not wrong and it's not going to get any better for a while. And when you get to the end of the first night and you wonder why, exactly, NBC decided they wanted a "Rosemary's Baby" for 2014? Why this was a story they wanted to tell now? Well, that's not an answer you're likely to get.
"Rosemary's Baby" airs on Sunday, May 11 and Thursday, May 15 at 9 p.m. both nights on NBC.