‘Love & Death’ review: So I married an axe murderer
The past decade or so has been flooded with adaptations done for the same story by different studios and, sometimes, original stories that resemble one another. Back in 2011, the feature films No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits both came out, both original stories revolving around the same plot and 2022 saw Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo del Toro both present the world with film live-action versions of Pinocchio. Also last year, Hulu released a limited series titled Candy, and HBO Max is following suit this year by releasing Love & Death, which follows the same story. Even last year’s Candy wasn’t the first adaptation of this story; the 1990 television movie A Killing in a Small Town won Barbara Hershey an Emmy for her performance. This story has an expectation to it when being adapted again. Every time one of these stories is adapted twice in quick succession, there’s no other choice but to choose a favorite and lean towards one over the other. In this case, it wouldn’t be Love & Death’s version of the story.
Love & Death is another drama from David E. Kelley (The Practice, Big Little Lies) and follows the real-life story and seemingly normal life of Candace “Candy” Montgomery (Emmy nominee Elizabeth Olsen), a woman who has become stagnant in her marriage and seeks a slight thrill outside of it. She loves her husband, takes care of her family, and goes to church on a weekly basis, but it’s clear that Candy longs for excitement. She propositions her friend Betty’s (Lily Rabe) husband, Allan (Academy Award and Emmy Award nominee Jesse Plemons), to see if he would be interested in having an affair with her. Deep into the affair, Betty finds out about it and gets into an argument with Candy that results in her death; Candy uses an ax and murders Betty. What follows is the subsequent investigation and hearing that finds Candy Montgomery innocent in the murder of Betty Gore. Even if Candy was found innocent, HBO Max has committed a crime with this adaptation.
While the story itself might have an interesting concept to it, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to be put into seven hour-long episodes that drag the story out. While Hulu’s version last year presented the story by showing the violence to the audience then allowing the rest of the events to surround it, Love & Death is a linear story that begins before the affair and pushes through every event with a melodramatic punch. It follows Candy as she makes her way around Wylie, Texas, a small town where everyone knows everyone else. So much of the drama takes place at the local church, from getting a new pastor to everyone discovering Betty’s death and it traveling around quickly. Candy and Allan can mostly be found in hotel rooms during intimate rendezvous as they develop an intimacy that only exists in their relationship, not their respective marriages. The series attempts to set up the characters before thrusting the audience into the story, but still doesn’t find the time to set up anything overly important or interesting in relation to the series. It introduces the characters in a pretty standard fashion that works fine, but almost not enough to draw enough interest in. The events of Candy’s life seem to pass by quickly and with little importance as the series rushes to the rumble between Betty and Candy; while the fight seems exciting in the moment, before and after this event doesn’t do the same.
The series doesn’t do a terrible job of setting up motivations for characters and can sometimes provide a clear understanding of who these people are, it just mostly comes off as exaggerated versions of people one might see on tv. Betty is paranoid about everything, from the moment we meet her, almost to a clinical point. It’s no wonder she figures out that her husband is having an affair. She even catches Candy and Allan sharing long glances with one another (again, an exaggerated version that’s about 10 seconds longer than a regular glance would be). It wouldn’t take an investigator to figure it out, but for someone who is hyperattentive to their surroundings like Betty, it makes sense. Lily Rabe does as best she can trying to infuse Betty with a sense of normalcy, a woman that’s having a hard time with life and just wants a successful marriage. She can be a bit of a menace, however, especially when it comes to the church’s new pastor after the old one leaves following a divorce. Betty is acidic when speaking about the young new pastor, which gives her extra dimension as she seems desperate yet cruel at times.
The series attempts to provide a voyeuristic view into the life of a housewife that cracks, but instead feels intrusive. There’s a specific camera movement in a later episode, during an important chat between characters, where the camera moves through the room in a circling fashion around the two talking; it moves in a way that feels as though the audience does not belong. It goes behind a lamp and completely removes the two characters from sight, which feels like a strange choice. Perhaps if that was the only decision that felt off, it wouldn’t be so noticeable, but the entire series feels like a strange version of events we just saw last year. Moments like this do not do the story or performances justice. The performances could almost be considered camp if they weren’t supposed to be taken so seriously. Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff 1960’s accent and intonation is back at 120% and, while she does have moments that work, the performance is just too over-the-top in places for it to work with what the other performers are doing. Jesse Plemons turns in good work throughout the series as he portrays a man in a complicated situation that doesn’t know how he found himself there. Plemons’ scenes feel the most grounded in reality as he doesn’t feel hyperbolic or over-the-top as others in the show. Krysten Ritter shows up as Candy’s friend, Sherry, in random scenes for a few moments then leaves and doesn’t do much else.
The first thing the audience might notice is the extreme Big Little Lies-ification of the main title sequence. Kelley created both series, as they were both on HBO as well, but the title credits show the desperation to be considered a prestige soapy drama, which this is not. This is a series that wants to be something that it is not and refuses to fully embrace the campy tones that it consistently gives off. There’s an entire episode where Candy dissociates so much that it feels like Olsen’s given direction was to do nothing and stare off into space; while it makes sense in context why the character is spaced out, the series beats these moments into the ground for the audience to fully comprehend. There is not a single moment of subtlety in the series, everything is laid out clearly and plainly, the audience not having to work at all to analyze any themes that it is possibly trying to lay out. As if everything else isn’t working enough for the series, then the audience must get past the wigs they have put on each of these actors. Elizabeth Olsen gets by unscathed, but what of Krysten Ritter?
There are times when seeing the same story adapted more than once within a year or two can be an interesting experience that allows audiences a deeper understanding of the story unfolding in front of them. These shows or films can be seen as mirrors of the human experience; Love & Death is not one of these series. With dialogue that feels lifted from a blacklisted 1990’s script and performances from great actors that seem like cartoon characters, the series falters in more ways than one. It’s an adaptation that now seems completely unnecessary following last year’s Candy (and probably would feel that way regardless). The series tries to make the audience feel empathy for any of the characters, but they all feel empty, just like the episodes themselves.
The first three episodes of the seven-episode limited series Love & Death will begin streaming April 27 on HBO Max with new episodes weekly.