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Blithe Spirit (2021)
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by Jay Seaver

"It's a good thing one doesn't really care about this sort of movie's story."
3 stars

You probably don't get more than a minute or two into "Blithe Spirit" before the flashy colors, imminent broad slapstick, and maybe slightly exaggerated sound effects tell you that this movie is going to work hard to make you laugh. That is no bad thing - it beats the cases when filmmakers seem determined that any comedy that occurs should seem unintentional - but something like this could occasionally do with being sly as well. All that obvious effort means that even randomness has a hard time catching one by surprise.

It opens with writer Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) having a devil of a time adapting the first of his series of mystery novels into a screenplay. Second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) is supportive - and eager to move into a new social circle - but not the muse that his first was. The pair join another couple (Emilia Fox & Julian Rhind-Tutt) for an evening out watching spiritualist Cecily Arcati (Judi Dench), which inspires Charles with a new angle, though he'd want to learn more about the tricks of the trade first. But when they arrange a private seance with Madame Arcati, it's accidentally too successful - Charles's deceased first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann) manifests for Charles, and when he's not looking like a lunatic for talking to someone only he can see, neither woman is terribly happy about the presence of the other.

Director Peter Hall has spent a good portion of the past decade or so making television that falls in the same general category as Blithe Spirit - stories set in 1930s Britain with fine Art Deco houses and practical yet striking fashions, where all of the upper-class people in the main cast are free-spirited and educated enough to speak frankly and wittily while the servants who support such a life seem comfortable and not ill-treated in their stations, backed by a peppy soundtrack that is decades away from having a synthesizer or electric guitar involved - and why not? It's just familiar enough to imagine oneself in the situation and just far back enough to be a fantasy. Here, he and the producers do a nice job evoking that sort of fantasy version of the 1930s, with a sprawling house that seems well-suited to the widescreen photography and a pleasing combination of idleness and energy. For movies like this, the particular story being told is less important than the mood, and this one does a very good job of getting the feeling right.

Part of that is freeing the cast up to be less naturalistic than they would be in contemporary productions, but not everyone is quite able to hit that target. The heck of it is that the two actresses who seem most comfortable going broad, Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann, don't get much chance to play off each other, as the latter is playing a ghost that the former can't see. They are individually a lot of fun as society and flapper ladies who seem just sincere enough in their fondness for Charles to smooth over how demanding and oblivious they can be. Dan Stevens, on the other hand, has the raw tools for this sort of thing (consider how he just dives into this sort of chaos on Legion), but is never quite able to see his character defined precisely enough for the triangle to work: Charles is too willing to do whatever will create the most chaos, and Stevens never quite gets a personality out of it the way Fisher and Mann do. Dench does the job asked of her well enough, but Madame Arcati seems to be conceived of as too sincere; there's a sadness to her that is nice work on Dench's part even though the movie would probably be better with Arcati an outright fraud frantic at having actually succeeded in piercing the veil.

The direction also often feels one gear too slow, like the banter would really pop if they were exchanging it without pause, but instead there's just enough time for Charles to realize that he looks like a nut yelling at empty air, so that it looks weird when he keeps doing it. It also highlights how either Noel Coward or the person adapting his play seems to be making it up as he hopes along, and stuff that would work if they were just zipping along to the next joke flops when the audience has time to try and reconcile it with the last scene. There are bits that occasionally seem like something may come out of them, like just how much Elvira being Charles's "muse" actually entailed, but then the movie will get pulled in another direction, and they're increasingly jarring as the film goes along.

It's often enough the result of following the jokes and sparing no effort in selling them to more or less work, especially with the spiffy production and nifty cast. "Blithe Spirit" misfires often enough to be frustrating, but works just enough to counter that for an hour and a half or so.

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originally posted: 03/04/21 07:42:56
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