‘Solos’: 7 stories of seclusion, most of them pretty great
Helen Mirren, Constance Wu and Anthony Mackie are among the stars performing on their own in Amazon’s assortment of short films.
The common theme of human isolation runs through all seven episodes of the Amazon anthology series “Solos” and the finale includes references to some of the characters from previous installments — but each story from showrunner David Weil is a stand-alone miniature film, and some are more effective than others, so we will review accordingly.
A seven-part series available Friday on Amazon Prime Video
Morgan Freeman is the offscreen narrator who introduces the first six episodes before starring in the closer. He introduces each episode with a cryptic and existential question, e.g., “If you traveled to the future, could you escape your past?” and “How far would you travel to find yourself” and “Who decides who belongs in the world?” You can almost see the ghost of Rod Serling in the corner of “The Twilight Zone,” cupping a cigarette and nodding his approval.
- In the Zach Braff-directed “Leah,” Anne Hathaway turns on the emotional spigot with such fury it makes her Oscar-winning turn in “Les Miserables” seem understated. Hathaway — a fine actress who does hit some resonant notes here — plays a genius-level physicist in her 30s who literally lives in Mom’s basement and is surrounded by glowing and rumbling devices that add up to one big time machine, which Leah has been trying to perfect for years and years. Suddenly, Leah comes face to face with her future — and with her past, giving us three Anne Hathaways interacting with one another, and alas, two of them are more irritating than three-dimensional. Also, using John Denver’s cornpone ballad “Back Home Again” in a key moment is a major misstep. Rating: ★★1⁄2
- We get another actor-plays-against-the-same-actor gimmick in “Tom” with Anthony Mackie as a successful man with a wonderful wife and great kids who learns he’s running out of time — so he pays for a replacement, who looks just like Tom and sounds just like Tom and has downloaded all of Tom’s experiences and is now doing a meet-and-greet with Tom. (The “Solos” extended universe exists in a relatively near future, where there have been significant advances in science, and the smart phones are even spiffier than today’s smart phones.) Mackie turns in a fine dual performance, with the real Tom displaying much more urgency and emotion than his replacement, but there’s too much unexplained, too many questions unanswered. The whole idea of a Tom 2.0 is never fleshed out, leaving us with an incomplete storyline. Rating: ★★
- The only performer we see in “Peg” is Helen Mirren in a snazzy red space suit, and who’s not up for that? This is a melancholy gem about a 71-year-old woman who always has been afraid to take chances in life and decides on a whim to sign up for an experiment in which individuals are sent to the deepest reaches of outer space — and it’s a one-way trip. Now THAT’S switching gears. Peg sometimes converses with an unseen A.I. entity who sounds like a more benevolent version of HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but this could well be a one-woman stage show, with Mirren alternately playing charming, funny, contemplative and desperately sad as Peg reflects on chances not taken and opportunities lost. Rating: ★★★
- Nearly all of the stories in “Solos” feel like they could be taking place during an outbreak — and in the case of “Sasha” we’re actually in a post-pandemic world, some two decades after a globally transmitted virus sent the entire planet indoors. It’s long been safe to return to normalcy, but Sasha has become paranoid and believes the smart device installed in her house is trying to trick her into leaving. Uzo Aduba turns in moving and effective work as a woman who has disconnected from reality and cut off communications with her loved ones and is now in a panic because her only friend, the artificially intelligent voice in the house, says “he’s” leaving because the program is over and it’s time for her to live her life — a prospect that absolutely terrifies her. Rating: ★★★
- Constance Wu has uniquely subversive comedic timing and she puts it to great use in the wickedly funny and then stunningly tragic “Jenny,” in which the title character is really and truly drunk and goes off on an epic tangent that starts off bawdy, turns funny and then spirals into something so dark it’s nearly unbearable — for Jenny and for us. This is arguably the finest performance of Wu’s career. Rating: ★★★1⁄2
- My only complaint about the masterful “Nera” is it’s far too short at just under 20 minutes, as we have all the makings of a horror classic in the tradition of “Get Out” and “Us.” Tiffany Johnson directs with precise intensity and expert timing, Stacy Osei-Kuffour delivers a razor-sharp script and Nicole Beharie is mesmerizingly good as Nera, who has taken advantage of a near-future fertility treatment to become pregnant and is about to give birth to her first child. Couple of problems: There’s a winter storm raging outside Nera’s cabin so she’s gonna have to do this on her own, and her doctor warned of the slight possibility Nera’s child would experience radically accelerated growth and maturation — sort of like a linear Benjamin Button, only with survival instincts that could turn him against Mom, and we’ll say no more than that. Nera goes from elated to terrified to … something else as she processes the freakish occurrences transpiring over the course of one long and stormy night. Rating: ★★★★
- Equally powerful is the finale, “Stuart,” in which we finally get to meet the man who has served as our narrator/tour guide: Morgan Freeman’s Stuart, who is in the final stages of dementia and seems destined to live out his days in a memory-free fog, until a young man named Otto (Dan Stevens) shows up with black market memory implants that could bring everything — EVERYTHING — flooding back to Stuart. As that happens, we’re kept guessing as to Otto’s true motives until the very end. What transpires after that is simultaneously brutal and beautiful. Rating: ★★★★