September 21, 2019

Review: Kirsten Dunst Fights for Her Piece of the Pyramid Scheme

Review: Kirsten Dunst Fights for Her Piece of the Pyramid Scheme


Kirsten Dunst works hard to carry “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” a series that passed through the hands of AMC and YouTube Premium before arriving at Showtime, where it premieres on Sunday. Like the desperate disciples of the show’s cultlike merchandising pyramid scheme, she has to move a lot of product in the course of the show’s first season, and most of it is substandard.

Dunst plays Krystal Stubbs, resident of an “Orlando-adjacent” Florida town in 1992, who works at a water park while her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) sells insurance by day and at night recruits new distributors for Founders American Merchandise, a spuriously patriotic enterprise fueled by ever-expanding purchases of paper goods and cleaning supplies.

FAM — it’s your real family! — is literally and figuratively all-consuming, and early on it upends Krystal’s life. (The crucial moment is one of the show’s few dips into true Florida gothic.) Falling from lower-middle-class anxiety to the brink of bankruptcy, she vows to fight back, and the season is a dark-comic account of her battle to regain solvency and extract a measure of revenge. FAM’s exhortations include the question, “Are you the man who takes the control?,” and Krystal, with her mulish, small-minded, amoral determination to win at any cost, is that man.

“On Becoming a God” has some big if not very original ideas on its mind, beginning with its equation of the American dream to a get-rich-quick marketing scam in which the goal is maximum reward for minimum work and job stands for “just over broke.” And entwined with FAM’s nationalism is a revival-meeting-style religiosity designed to render infallible the pronouncements of the scheme’s founder, a white-maned patriarch with the flamboyant name Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine).

It tackles those ideas in a style — or according to a recipe — that now seems to be the default for a certain type of non-genre-specific cable or streaming drama: kind of topical, kind of satirical, kind of whimsical, kind of fantastical, kind of sentimental, kind of raunchy. It looks realistic — and in the hands of the cinematographer Tobias Datum (“Counterpart”) and a crew of directors including Charlie McDowell and So Yong Kim, it has an interestingly dark and crepuscular look — but moves with a kind of prosaic dream logic.

These shows can have their rewards — AMC’s fanciful “Lodge 49” is a prime example — but they often feel as if they’ve been built from the outside in, with concept sucking up air that could have gone to characters and story. “On Becoming a God” is particularly afflicted: As Krystal carries out her campaign, infiltrating FAM with the help of a young insider who falls under her spell (an excellent Théodore Pellerin), it’s hard for us to see exactly what that spell is.

Dunst, in just her second headlining television role (after Season 2 of “Fargo”), does what she can, but the script and story (the show was created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky) work against her natural vibrancy. Krystal’s a cipher — there’s not much to her beyond her single-mindedness, a weapon the plot uses to disrupt the lives of the secondary but more fully rendered male characters.

And while you can’t ask “On Becoming a God” to be a different sort of show, the show that it is reaches for mildly transgressive satire while neglecting to explore in any nuanced way what might draw people to devote their lives to a personality cult like FAM, beyond simple greed and a need for belonging.

If the skewering of easy political and cultural marks appeals to you, the series provides a target-rich environment. FAM’s ideas and methods put it on the wrong side of issues from gender to race to immigration, allowing the show to play the scold with regularity. In one particularly obvious instance, Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), a friend and water-park colleague Krystal lures into FAM, finds a gold mine of new recruits among the poor immigrants in a Spanish-speaking church congregation.

“On Becoming a God” does have a distinguishing feature beyond Dunst’s presence: For much of its running time, it’s more downbeat than this kind of comic drama usually allows, as Krystal’s attempts at solvency are continually set back, by game wardens or secret second mortgages or Obie’s cruel whims. What the American dream and a pyramid scheme really have in common, the show demonstrates, is that you can work really hard at either and end up with nothing in the bank.

On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Sunday on Showtime



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