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Prime Video's Workplace Horror-Comedy The Consultant Loses Its Edge

Christoph Waltz entered into a type of Faustian agreement a few years ago when he won two Oscars from two Quentin Tarantino movies, playing the kind of character who turns the trait "inquisitive" into a threat. Hans Landa of "Inglorious Basterds" was a great role for him in particular, and he has shown different shades of gentility and villainy since, but it's the type of golden part intrinsic to his dramatic and physical presence. Seeing Waltz as a manipulative leader who can fashion a warm sentiment into a trap has since lost its full oomph like any cliche does after so much use. His latest performance, for Prime Video's "The Consultant," is yet another expression of precise tyranny, and it's placed at the center of this thin, drawn-out saga that's like insidious "The Office." 

It's fitting to this show's on-the-nose nature that Waltz plays a type of shady, unusual figure who comes into a mobile game business named CompWare and makes some strange changes. Here, Waltz is a vessel for weirdness and another part of what makes this series digestible but bland. Set in a crisp, modern tech workplace that has a striking palette of red puncturing black backgrounds—like a brake light at night—the show watches as his character Regus Patoff takes over despite no one knowing who he is. Two employees, Craig (Nat Wolff) and Elaine (Brittany O'Grady), watch with skepticism as he ascends the throne after their former boss Mr. Sang (Brian Yoon), was shot in the middle of a company visit. That last tidbit makes for the series' first big bizarro moment, with a tinge of absurdity. But "The Consultant" dulls that edge while being so content at using flash-bang WTF moments and heavyhanded needle drops. When Mama Sang (Gloria John) arrives to become of the show's many cliffhangers in an early episode, the creators can't resist playing "Mama Said" by The Shirelles. 

Adapted by showrunner Tony Basgallop (Apple TV+'s "Servant") from a book by Bentley Little, "The Consultant" struggles to be a punchy comic-horror take on the recent entrepreneur stories ("WeCrashed," "Superpower: The Story of Uber"), in which eccentrics wield corporate power despite being so out of touch with their employees and customers. In this case, Waltz's strangely named Regus Patoff fires remote workers who can't arrive at the office an hour after their first meeting. Later on, he basically forces one employee (Michael Charles Vaccaro's Iain) to take a sponge bath in his office to rid himself of a smell that gravely upsets Regus. Sinister forces are at play, coded with moves not shocking to a typical toxic work environment—Regus crosses over work/life boundaries, dehumanizes the people on his salary spreadsheets, and makes people feel awful. 

Even without Waltz playing its sneaky title character, "The Consultant" would have too many flaws to be worth more than a lazy binge-viewing. It's a show that keeps piling on mysteries for the sake of getting stranger and stranger, without building a significant amount of tension. Characters are left volleying questions in their dialogue (Nat Wolff is full of prompts in the first half), and everyone's behavior can be a bit baffling. For example, despite learning all many weird facets about Regus Patoff, it's only in episode seven when Craig questions where his boss lives or if he even goes to the bathroom. The series often uses one's unknown motivation for strange behavior as a cliffhanger, but that becomes tedious when "The Consultant" doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. 

In a way that's effectively more subtle than certain power moves, "The Consultant" shows how individuals like Craig and Elaine would be caught up in the spell, especially with the promise of upward mobility, being close to the boss. With a vampire's grace, he teases conversations of understanding to gain access to their personal lives. Craig, initially trying to buddy up, has a wild ride with Regus, which helps Regus later get closer to his progressively distant fiancée Patti (Aimee Carrero). And in the middle of Craig and Elaine's investigations into his background, Elaine chooses to look past many eccentricities, especially if it means a way to spruce up her resume. No sci-fi-grade mind control is needed for these gradual developments—one of the show's more incisive statements—but these games can't give "The Consultant" the speed it needs. 

Now and then, "The Consultant" has moments that achieve its desired grace as an allegory, like one mid-season episode that focuses on a side character who sacrifices so much for Faustian work. A hand dropping one valuable item into fire says a great deal in a fashion specific to the tone that Basgallop and his directors (Matt Shakman, Karyn Kusama, Charlotte Brändström, and others) conjure. But the same can't be said for the outrageous stuff that follows in the next scene, caught up in symbolism and the show's need for more chaos. 

Across its eight half-hour episodes, "The Consultant" struggles to build much of a plot out of its symbol, sometimes resorting to using characters like prompts in a video game; other witnesses at CompWare, mostly just sit around with scant collective sentiments like non-playable characters. For all of Patoff's alarming movements, there isn't a thick enough atmosphere of worry in this office space, which is then paralleled with the creation of a baffling video game, a long-winded metaphor-in-the-making about characters who walk on glass. 

Basgallop has mentioned in interviews that he sees this concept running for more seasons, which is bizarre in itself. No spoilers here, but the significance of the show's concept is already hammered in well enough. Whether it does get another shot, "The Consultant" has only limited power as a metaphor and even less so as an obvious precautionary tale. 

All of season one was screened for review. "The Consultant" premieres in full on Prime Video tomorrow, February 24th. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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