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Movie Curiosities: Hysteria

Blogs, Movie CuriositieswilliambComment

I scarcely know where to begin describing tonight's movie, and not because it's a film about the invention of the vibrator. That premise carries a great deal of potential for a good movie, especially given the state of medicine and the climate of tremendous change back in turn-of-the-century England. Yet Hysteria manages to botch the premise in a number of ways, hence my difficulty in knowing where to begin.

I may as well start with the film's dirty little secret: It isn't about the vibrator. Not really. The thing isn't even invented until halfway through the running time. After that, we get a few orgasm jokes, a 20-second montage, and the vibrator is never seen again until the end credits. Its only function in the narrative after the halfway point is to make its inventors rich.

Until that halfway point, the preferred treatment for female hysteria is for a doctor to make his patient orgasm by hand. As such, we're treated to a solid hour of nonstop puns, innuendos, and double-entendres. If sexual humor of that nature makes you laugh, then good for you. Personally, I found it so juvenile, brainless, tired, and over-acted that the scenes could just as easily have been sketches on "Saturday Night Live."

So the vibrator's invention isn't the focus of the story. Instead, the story focuses on a love triangle.

At one side of the triangle is Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a young doctor who dearly wants to help his patients with the latest medicine. Unfortunately, he can't seem to find any doctors crazy enough to believe that infections are caused by germs and that leeches are not the best medicine.

In Granville's introductory scene, we're meant to identify with him as a hard-working and well-intentioned guy who can't seem to catch a break. The filmmakers even threw in Dancy's good looks and completely non-threatening demeanor to sweeten the pot.

The problem is that the filmmakers tried way too hard to make this work. The introduction is so rushed and so artificial that it comes off as completely forced. Moreover, this establishes a kind of shorthand: Anyone who carries a relatively progressive modern-day mindset is inherently good, and anyone who insists on 19th-century thinking is a worthless idiot. This style of characterization applies to everyone in the film, whether it works or not.

Granville's love interest is an excellent case in point. Charlotte Dalrymple (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) runs a poor house in one of London's most run-down districts. She's a wonderfully charitable person who tirelessly gives to those in need, but her charity runs unimpeded by such things as logic or moderation. She gives money and food so freely that she begs, borrows, lies, steals, and cheats to get the necessary money. Additionally, Charlotte is a political activist who will scream about women's equality to anyone who will listen.

Put simply, Charlotte is rude, loud, preachy, dishonest, pushy, and she acts entirely on emotions as opposed to common sense. Yet her intentions are good, and Charlotte's mindset is far ahead of her time. Because of the latter, the movie expects me to like her and accept her as the film's moral center. Because of the former, I refuse.

For another case in point, we look to the third side of the film's love triangle, Emily Dalrymple (Charlotte's little sister, played by Felicity Jones). Here's a young woman who's beautiful, intelligent, sweet, and practiced in a variety of skills. She's a perfectly lovely woman, and it's obvious that there's a great degree of mutual attraction between her and Granville. Yet there are two reasons why Emily can't be the main love interest. First is that she has an interest in phrenology, which automatically makes her a backwards-thinking idiot by this film's logic. Second (and perhaps more importantly), Emily is reduced to a totally boring nonentity the very instant that Charlotte appears.

Yes, the film has to dumb down one side of the love triangle to make the other side look more appealing. That should be reason enough for why the romance arc in this movie completely fails.

Moving on to the other characters, there's Jonathan Pryce playing Dr. Robert Dalrymple. In addition to being Granville's boss, he's also the father of the love triangle's other two sides. And this character is all over the map. At first, he's a rather nice fellow who accepts Granville's mindset and pays him handsomely for it. Then the character gradually gets less sympathetic until the climax, when he literally pays good money to shut down Charlotte's poor house, just to spite his own daughter. Sorry, but when did this character become Snidely fucking Whiplash? Why does our protagonist spend the entire film trying to get into Dalrymple's good graces? And why doesn't the movie give this asshole the comeuppance he deserves?!

Moving along, there's also Edmund St. John-Smythe, scion of the wealthy family who took Granville in after he was orphaned. While Granville is determined to make his own way in the world, his adoptive brother is perfectly happy to lay around the house and get into all manner of sexual misadventures. By the way, did I mention that the role is played by Rupert Everett?

Anyway, one of Edmund's hobbies is to play around with all the latest electrical gadgets. I swear to God, there's a scene in which he's experimenting with a telephone and he asks "Can you hear me now?" Anyway, it's Edmund who actually invents the vibrator, though Granville is the one who thinks to use it for "medicinal" purposes.

I'll grant that Edmund is good for a few laughs in this movie. Ditto for Molly (Sheridan Smith), a former prostitute currently working as a maid for the Dalrymples. Still, the humor in this picture misses far more often than it hits, in large part because the movie addresses sexuality (particularly female sexuality) in the absolute safest way possible. The movie is juvenile when it should be mature, it's tired when it should be shocking, it's stupid when it should be thought-provoking, and it strives not to offend when it should be attempting to shock.

For a point of comparison, consider Love and Other Drugs. I hated that movie, don't get me wrong, but at least it actually showed nudity, intercourse, and a four-hour erection. It was a romantic comedy about sex that actually tried to address sex in an honest and provocative way. There's absolutely none of that here.

Something else about the movie is that it tries to talk about medical science. The film wants to talk about science's tendency to renew itself and to think about what role doctors have in helping others. Unfortunately, as stated before, everything that the film has to say about this is effectively boiled down to "modern science = good, outdated science = bad." Compare this to Kinsey, the Liam Neeson biopic about another famous doctor in the field of sexual research. Again, that film was far from perfect, but it still had much more to say about science, ethics, sexuality, and prudishness than the makers of this film could possibly have dreamed of.

That just leaves the socio-political material, particularly about women's equality. First of all, it's a little too late to use the issue of women's suffrage to make any kind of relevant feminist statement. Secondly, if the filmmakers wanted me to take their message to heart, then they shouldn't have had some shrill harpy beat me about the head with it. Even when the protagonist gives some speech to praise the virtues of sexual equality, there's no way I'm taking the speech seriously when he's just parroting the words of said shrill harpy.

Hysteria is a total failure. The romance is forced, the character development is broken, the themes of feminism are preachy and pretentious, and the sexual subject matter is executed in a manner completely devoid of maturity or shock value. That's not to say it's outright awful or poorly-made, it's just bland, poorly-paced, and boring. Given the amount of talent and effort that clearly went into this film, I'm left dumbfounded at the sight of this much potential being squandered so badly.

This might be worth a rental if it somehow wrangles a few awards nominations. Otherwise, there's no way I can recommend it.

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