Once upon a time, I was pretty excited about seeing Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria, a film about the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s as a cure for hysteria in women. “I wanted to make a Merchant-Ivory movie with vibrators,” Wexler explained in an entertaining interview last spring. What, I asked, could go wrong?

Pretty much everything, as it turns out.

To be precise, what goes wrong is:

  1. Storyline that seeks neither historical accuracy nor three-dimensionality.
  2. Jaunty background music that signals in every scene that this is secretly a Disney film made in 1977.
  3. Dialogue that is so broad and unfunny that you sometimes expect the entire film to become a terrible musical, à la “Springtime for Hitler,” shouted from a stage by amateur actors.
  4. The entire narrative is foreshadowed in Scenes 1 and 2.
  5. Utterly improbable use of the law to speed along the narrative.
  6. Maggie Gyllenhaal appears so distracted by her own mastery of an Emma Thompson accent that she stumbles into every scene like the actorly equivalent of a bull. (See #3 above.)
  7. Token ginger-haired housemaid/reformed prostitute lives up to every stereotype. Not that she is out of place.
  8. And yes, the story takes the independent-minded reformer and feminist and … ultimately marries her off.

And then there are shots like this. [Didion shakes her head, slowly and mournfully.]

I can’t believe how much Hysteria represents a squandered opportunity. I mean, funding for movies made by women doesn’t grow on trees, people. More important: I got this film out of a RedBox machine last night because I needed light, comic fare for the end of a long day — and it proves merely to be grating. (I will admit that Rupert Everett had his moments, but I’m mad at him right now, thanks to our friend Michael.)

Want to know the difference between this and a Merchant-Ivory film? Let’s just say that the vibrators were the very least of it.

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