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'Mosaic' is Steven Soderbergh's twisty new murder mystery

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Paul Reubens and Sharon Stone in Mosaic. (Photo: Claudette Barius/HBO)

In Mosaic, Sharon Stone plays a famous, wealthy children’s-book author who dies under suspicious circumstances. Who killed her? That’s the simple hook in creator-director Steven Soderbergh’s new project, whose six nightly parts started airing Monday on HBO. Stone’s Olivia Lake lives in a snowy upper-crust area of Utah where kids and fans of her work make pilgrimages to visit the author of Whose Woods These Are, which has been enjoyed by a generation. She’s approached by some investors and idea guys to turn her Utah property into what could be the first of a bunch of mini Disneyland-style tourist attractions. Did these business dealings have anything to do with her murder? One guy trying to get Olivia to sell her land is a con man, played by Frederick Weller, who soon claims to have fallen in love with Olivia. Or was the killing committed by Joel, the artist-handyman she recently hired to work on her property, played by Garrett Hedlund?

Lotsa suspects, lotsa ways for the narrative to twist. Soderbergh, always adventurous with ideas about how to tell a story, designed an app that was the initial way to experience this tale: Download the Mosaic app, and after an introductory chapter, you can start selecting different characters through whose point of view you follow different aspects of the complex story. “Choose how the story unfolds,” the app promises, and you can explore many hours of possibilities. I opted for the more linear, six-part version Soderbergh assembled for HBO. (Hey, I had The Alienist and Waco to review this week as well!)

The HBO Mosaic is very alluring, characterized by frequently beautiful shots of the Utah landscape, tightly organized by the plot hatched by Soderbergh and writer Ed Solomon. Stone’s performance is terrific, at once shrewd and open. Seeing her Olivia match wits, flirt, joke, and get angry at handyman Joel and con man Eric is a pure pleasure. The show is packed with other interesting faces, including Paul Reubens (the once-and-future Pee-wee Herman) as Olivia’s catty confidant, Devin Ratray as an in-over-his-head local cop, and Jennifer Ferrin as Eric’s art historian sister. Familiar faces like Beau Bridges, Fringe’s Michael Cerveris, and Loudon Wainwright III pop up, intriguingly. All of them give themselves over to Soderbergh, who stages the action with an efficiency that is itself frequently beautiful to behold — he makes a murky murder mystery ring with dramatic clarity.

Mosaic is airing now on HBO.

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