Brie Larson Cooks Up a Stellar Performance in Charming Page-to-Screen Drama 'Lessons in Chemistry'

The Oscar-winner gets her best role in years in this adaptation of Bonnie Garmus' bestseller about a chemistry genius who becomes a TV cooking show host, and a feminist hero.
Sarah Ward
November 22, 2023

Brie Larson makes a great Captain Marvel. She's even better as Elizabeth Zott. Since winning a Best Actress Oscar for 2015's Room, Larson's resume has largely been filled by the blockbuster end of town — see: Kong: Skull Island, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Fast X and The Marvels — but it's been screaming for a part like Lessons in Chemistry. In her first non-franchise on-screen role since 2019's Just Mercy, she turns executive producer, too, guiding a page-to-screen adaptation of Bonnie Garmus' bestseller that needs her performance as its star ingredient. A chemistry genius and then a TV cooking show host who is forced to battle sexism as both, Elizabeth is as complicated as the holy-grail project that she works in secret as a lab technician, and as the recipes that she later perfects for television audiences.

Regardless of whether you've read Lessons in Chemistry's 2022 source material or are coming anew to Apple TV+'s small-screen version, which has been streaming episodically since October and can be binged in full from Wednesday, November 22, Elizabeth is magnificent to watch because Larson steps into her shoes so completely. The character is direct, determined and conscientious. She's not just nonplussed about being likeable, but near-allergically averse to that being her primary goal. She's curious and dryly funny, too, albeit careful about who she's open with. But being serious and rightly cautious about how 50s and 60s America routinely disregards women doesn't mean that she's anything but authentic, whether she's asserting what she's always held dear, navigating life's traumas or finding space for others in her life. Early in the series, Elizabeth's quest to whip up a flawless lasagne has her up to her 78th attempt — and layers are just as crucial for Larson in playing the show's protagonist.

When Lessons in Chemistry begins, it's with a brief jump forward to cameras and adoring viewers, with Elizabeth's Supper at Six series an established hit. It'll take half of the broader show to get back to TV cooking with no-nonsense science explanations, an appreciation for domestic duties and an uplifted fanbase, but the opening burns an imprint, signalling that its lead character's days of being expected to make coffee for male-only Hastings Research Institute scientists are numbered. Although Elizabeth has a master's degree in chemistry, her Southern Californian employer cares little about that, or that she's the smartest person on their books, because she lacks a Y chromosome. Instead, they scold her for after-hours experiments — the only time that she can delve into her own work — and lack of interest in the company beauty pageant, and trot out a misogynistic go-to: that she isn't smiling enough.

It's at Hastings that Elizabeth meets Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman, Outer Range), who inhabits another world when it comes to respect, yet resides on the exact same non-conformist turf. As the reason for much of the institute's funding, he's the organisation's science rockstar as long as he's bringing in grant money. Like Elizabeth, it's solely the work that he's interested in, not the hoops and hoopla around it. Thanks to her research into abiogenesis, aka the origins of life from organic compounds, they're swiftly professional partners. Coming as a surprise to both, they're soon living together in Los Angeles' Sugar Hill, alongside rescue dog Six-Thirty (named after his daily wake-up time). 

She likes orderly melodies, while he thinks best to jazz. Her ideal lab has everything in its place, but his is where he showers and scatters around saltine crumbs. In both developing the series from the book and penning or co-penning half of the episodes, Little America and Jury Duty creator Lee Eisenberg lingers on how Elizabeth and Calvin jostle as they fall in love, experiencing existence's unpredictability in the process. The tale from there leans on the latter, especially as the reality that so few of life's variables can be controlled becomes baked in via an array of ways. Selling Tupperware, turning her home kitchen into a lab, Supper at Six, becoming a mother to Mad (played by sincere first-timer Alice Halsey as a seven-year-old): these are all sprinkled into Elizabeth's story, too. Unlike in the novel, so is the efforts of her neighbour Harriet Sloane (Aja Naomi King, How to Get Away with Murder) to fight against the razing of their mostly Black area for a freeway.

"Look how much things have evolved" is rarely the statement made by period-set TV dramas. With Lessons in Chemistry, just as with Mad Men and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel before it — and dramedies Minx and GLOW as well — spotlighting what is and isn't different between a bygone era and now, and how much the second proves the case, simmers throughout. As Elizabeth faces sexist barriers in chemistry and TV alike, as a single woman and then mum, and while pursuing her career and stressing the importance of cooking, it's plain to see the barriers and prejudices that blocked 50s and 60s women at every turn. As legal aide Harriet campaigns against her neighbourhood being demolished, and the discrimination that bulldozing a predominantly Black part of town represents, Lessons in Chemistry makes the same observations regarding race. Thinking that these issues have disappeared with the period's gorgeous decor and costuming is missing the point.

This handsomely and heartfeltly made series might pepper change's inevitability across its tale from start to finish — and speak about it in multiple big moments — but it also spies what happens when nothing moves or shifts. Letting that truth percolate is as much its mission as positioning Elizabeth and Harriet as aspirational feminist and activist heroes, even if Harriet's worthy subplot feels like it's been shoehorned in (because it has) and is deserving of its own entire drama (as it is). Lessons in Chemistry is a comfortable and compelling underdog story about pluck, passion and proficiency versus the patriarchy and oppression, then, but with some bite. That said, it still opts for the massively misguided move of letting Six-Thirty turn narrator, aping the book's similar approach and enlisting the voice of BJ Novak (Vengeance). Barking up A Dog's Purpose's tree is thankfully over fast.

Although never free of imperfections, as little in life, science or the culinary arts is, Lessons in Chemistry keeps bubbling — and charming. As the plot finds room for leaps back into Elizabeth and Calvin's respective painful histories, Mad to turn detective, pondering science versus faith, and women's liberation and civil rights pushes, it also benefits heavily from its key casting. Larson doesn't just lead expertly, but also shares wide-eyed affection with Pullman, who has inherited his dad Bill's (The High Note) charisma; a supportive rapport with the luminous King, who steals every scene that she's in; and a heartwarming bond with young find Halsey. Chemistry is on display in multiple ways, including in making watching Lessons in Chemistry a richer experience than reading it.

Check out the trailer for Lessons in Chemistry below:

Lessons in Chemistry streams via Apple TV+.

Published on November 22, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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