Hysteria is the feel-good movie of the summer — not for any feelings invoked in its audience, but because it’s a romantic comedy about the birth of the vibrator.
Per Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), its feelings of melancholia were caused by an “overactive uterus.” The most effective treatment the physician could offer — as he demonstrates to his dashing new assistant, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy, Martha Marcy May Marlene) — was “vulva massage” to induce “paroxysm.”
Today, we know it as the orgasm, whereas back then, male-dominated medicine refused to believe a woman could experience pleasure outside the act of intercourse. That changes once Granville, experiencing carpal tunnel from treating a full load, happens upon the idea of an electric feather duster to do his work for him. (It’s too bad theaters no longer employ the Sensurround system of 1974’s Earthquake.)
It goes over like gangbusters, and today, the vibrator is the world’s bestselling sex toy. However, this bit of oddball history gets shoved to the side so director Tanya Wexler may insert romantic elements to juice up Granville’s love life, in the form of Dalrymple’s dueling daughters.
Emily (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy) is the prim and proper one studying phrenology, much to her father’s doting delight; Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart) is the black-sheep feminist who roots for suffragism and detests such hoity-toity talk like, “Are the parsnips to your liking?” Who do you think will win Granville’s heart? Exactly.
Predictability is least worrisome of Hysteria’s troubles, because Dancy and Gyllenhaal undertake each step of the rom-com dance with admirable glee. What diminishes its mild level of joy is how embarrassed it seems at its own unique subject — the very thing that separates it from the fray. I’m not even sure why the movie bears an R rating, since nothing objectionable is ever seen — how could we with the film blushing so bright?
Worse is that the treatment sequences resort to sitcom-style humor that stoops to the easiest of laughs: The requisite buttoned-up elderly woman screams “Tally ho! Tally ho!” at a point of climax, while a rather rotund patient belts opera at hers.
No, Ms. Wexler, those parsnips are not to my liking. They taste a little too bland.
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