Like Falling Down, which splits between two leads, Lee Sung Jin’s tense series follows feuding strangers bound by more than their street anger.
A blaring horn. A stubborn scream. A raised middle finger. Drivers around the world are all too familiar with this simple sequence of events, and yet it continues to evoke heated debate, ongoing hostilities and a not inconsiderable amount of fear. In hindsight, street hype often feels inexplicable. Why was I so angry? What made me say that or do that or go that far? Such questions can at best lead to introspection: what Really made me react like this while driving? At worst, resentment drowns out questions and we just keep speeding down Fury Road.
In Beef, a new Netflix series from creator Lee Sung Jin and cool kids’ studio A24, the consequences of the combination of honking, exclamation and upside-down bird reach far and wide as Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun) in engaged in an escalating interpersonal feud that should have ended in the hardware store parking lot. They know that. We know that. But everyone also recognizes the irrational near inevitability of road rage. Once you feel offended, it’s hard to back down.
As the title fight stretches from those first moments through days, weeks, and months, “Beef” does a good job of balancing Amy and Danny’s practical intelligence and impractical passions; her bitterness towards the other driver ebbs and flows as her personal life gets better or worse, and it’s in those moments that the half-hour drama thrives. The series isn’t interested in picking sides. It is designed to evoke empathy for each fighter while exploring their shared humanity and collective hardships. Along the way, their grudges lead to shocking decisions – some justified by character and circumstances, others feeling compelled to up the ante – but even when “Beef” goes too far, it’s held together by Wong, Yeun, and understanding that Rage doesn’t make it always sense.
It’s only after Amy and Danny’s initial altercation (which you can watch for free on YouTube) that we learn who is outside of their respective vehicles. Amy is a self-made entrepreneur whose plant and housewares business is about to have a big sale. She’s been courting a wealthy buyer (played by Maria Bella with a blissful aspiration) for quite some time, and more than the huge check being teased, what Amy really wants is some time off. She wants time for her daughter without constant interruptions from work. She wants Time to be the kind of parent her husband George (Joseph Lee) already is, as June’s loving, patient and thoughtful daily caregiver. She also wants time away from the constant judgments of her mother-in-law, who always disregards Amy’s contributions as a provider.
Amy feels increasing pressure to prove herself as an entrepreneur and mother, and Danny — despite having no children or partner — is in a similar, sleazier boat. The demands of his one-man contracting business are demanding in many ways, which can make the job feel like a constant (managing Yelp reviews, hiring part-timers, finding clients, etc.), but he also brings a lot of it with pressure on himself. Danny claims that his family forces him to work so hard, and initially there is some truth to that position. With a brother like Paul (Young Mazino) – who is more interested in crypto schemes than helping with the business – and parents who are constantly complaining, his immediate relatives do their part to add to his dissatisfaction.
But Danny is fighting an unwinnable war. No matter how much he would like his brother to take care of the same things as Danny, they are different people, just as wanting to build his parents a house is an admirable but implausible goal for a working-class 30-something neighborhood Los Angeles. Lee, along with his writing team, deftly brings Danny and Amy’s class differences to their burgeoning struggle – without making it the central conflict. “Beef” adds surprising layers to their argument, nudging their pride while upping the ante. Lee seems most interested in finding out what demons Amy and Danny cast out from behind the wheel, and his scripts are notable for drawing parallels between his two leads — similarities you’re dying to see in one another recognise, beyond the dominant haze of white. hot rage.
Wong and Yeun shine throughout, especially when prompted to express their characters seething frustration while pretending to be fine. Danny is deliberately not far from a typical fed-up everyman, but Yeun is so keen on conveying the small insults that Danny hits where it hurts. His outrage is absolutely perfect, gliding effortlessly between comic desperation and smeared machismo – always able to find the shifting tone of the series. (“Beef” often feels like dark comedy, but is ultimately defined by long stretches of pure drama.) There’s a scene at the beginning where Danny breaks down and directs Jake Schreiers camera focuses squarely on Yeun’s face. Danny shows so much resistance to letting go, but he’s held his emotions in check for so long there’s just no way to contain them.
Courtesy of Netflix
It’s a beautiful moment that will soon be repeated by Wong. As a mainstay of her brand – from selfies with clients to jokes at industry panels – Amy often has to grin and put up with it. Her battle with Danny offers her an opportunity to express herself in ways she otherwise wouldn’t, and Wong throws herself into her most terrifying scenes with dizzying satisfaction. And yet it also leaves a clearer mark when Amy dials it down and opens it. A quiet arc involving Amy’s own mother is just as memorable as each of Wong’s outlandish attacks.
With so many moving side moments, “Beef” only loses momentum when it switches to full speed. Lee’s scripts spiral out of control in the last hour or so, setting the stakes too high for a resolution that requires some level of intimacy. Some viewers might enjoy digging into the ride, but the series loses its down-to-earth realism in too many incredible moments, and too many conclusions seem implied about where exactly they could have been.
‘Beef’ remains well worth seeing (as long as your nerves can tolerate such unnecessarily risky behavior) and its captivating performances make the five hour plus a worthy investment. The limited series may hit the back half of the shark, but in doing so it also mimics the conflicting emotions associated with its core conflict: Road Rage can turn us all into extreme versions of ourselves, and “Beef” plays the shocking part of outrage felt so strong from the first car horn to the last finger stretched out.
“Beef” premiered at SXSW Festival 2023. Netflix releases the limited series on Thursday, April 6th.
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