Snicker, titter, tee-hee! See, it's a period piece about the invention of the vibrator. Set in Victorian times! Think: Merchant-Ivory meets Benny Hill. You know, the kind of movie that'd make your auntie giggle and blush.
What, you thought Hysteria might actually have something to say about female sexual autonomy or the repressive arguments currently circulating among red-state moral patriarchs? Silly you. However would director Tanya Wexler throw in her gag of an opera singer hitting high C during orgasm?
Yeah, sure, Hysteria pays some anachronistic lip service to women's suffrage, but the real highlight of this art-house weezer is cutie-pie Hugh Dancy (this decade's Hugh Grant) getting carpal tunnel syndrome after he finger-bangs a few uptight matrons. It's just too saucy for words.
Dancy is Mortimer Granville, a young, Victorian doctor who's dismissed from his hospital post because of his progressive ideas about medicine. Desperate for work he joins Dr. Robert Dalrymple's (Jonathan Pryce) highly successful practice. Dalrymple specializes in the treatment of female hysteria, a malady that afflicts London's upper crust with anxiety, tension, headaches, etc. The cure? Digital manipulation. But when long hours of twirling the pearl lead to debilitating hand cramps, Mortimer invents the vibrator in order to save his job.
Coincidentally, Dalrymple's fetching and fiery daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is an outspoken pre-feminist reformer, running a medical clinic and shelter for poor women and children. Needless to say, opposites attract and constricted Victorian mores get in the way of the movie's sitcom-like romance. By the time the dramatic third-act courtroom showdown rolls around I dare anyone to give a damn. Hysteria is so woefully scripted, directed and constructed, it never rises above its Three's Company meets The King's Speech aspirations.
Part of the problem is the schizoid nature of the narrative — the first half is a breezy historical lark, the second is a series of contrived set-backs and sociopolitical complications. But most tragically, Dancy is burdened with an indecisive and inconsistent protagonist. Try as the charismatic actor might, Wexler and her three writers relegate Mortimer to a fickle bystander, forced to stand around and look foolish as others push the threadbare plot along.
Pryce is reliably engaging, and Rupert Everett, who plays Mortimer's inventor-friend, expertly steals every scene he's in, but Gyllenhaal is miscast. Or, more accurately, tragically underserved by the script. As spirited and charming as the talented actress struggles to be, Charlotte is a one-note creation, desperately in need of depth, humor, and personality. Her feminist arguments are so earnest and, frankly, modern, that I half expected her to weigh in on the recent contraception debate.
Hysteria is a terrific example of potential and talent wasted. Aside for a sporadically light tone, a couple of hearty chuckles, and a credit sequence that entertainingly chronicles the evolution of the vibrator — from the steam-powered "Manipulator" to the cordless "Rabbit" — the movie is a schwing and a miss.
Opens Friday, June 15, the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.