The new period British comedy “Blithe Spirit” has both the concept and the cast for a fun and hearty romp. The film stars Dan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Isla Fisher, and Judy Dench. It’s built on a delightfully wacky premise that would fit right in with the screwball comedies of old. Director Edward Hall along with the writing trio of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth deliver bursts of farcical mayhem and maintain a subtly deranged comic energy. Yet throughout I kept thinking something was missing.
“Blithe Spirit” is based on Noël Coward’s 1941 play of the same name. It was first adapted for the big screen in a 1945 film starring Rex Harrison. This brisk and lightly entertaining version rides on the backs of its charismatic cast who bring out the best in material that isn’t always certain of the kind of movie it wants to be. It leaves us with a film that has its funny moments and is easy to digest, but lacks the flavor to stick with you once the end credits have rolled.
The story is set in 1937 England and opens with an exasperated Charles Condomine (Stevens) staring at a blank page in his typewriter. Charles is an acclaimed crime novelist who has been hired to write the screenplay for an upcoming adaptation of one of his books. But a severe case of writer’s block has set in, something that his supportive yet quietly frustrated wife Ruth (Fisher) patiently puts up with. She gives him plenty of space in their lavish Art Deco estate to hammer out his words. She even tolerates him gazing at an old photo of his late wife Elvira in hopes that it might provide some kind of inspiration.
Finally Charles is struck with a new idea for a story, one inspired by a disastrous stage show he attends (and probably the amphetamines he’s been popping). He hires a medium and clairvoyant named Madame Arcati (Dench) to come to his home and conduct a private séance for the purpose of gathering material for his new story. Charles and Ruth along with their snobby upper-class chums George (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Violet (Emilia Fox) snicker their way through Madame Arcati’s conjuring, brushing off the flickering lights and blown-open doors to a passing storm.
But once everyone is gone Charles finds out Madame Arcati has inadvertently summoned the spirit of Elvira (Leslie Mann) who we learn died seven years earlier in an equestrian accident. It turns out that only Charles can see and hear Elvira and she doesn’t take kindly to Ruth being in their house. It sets up a series of comic mischief and slapstick gags as two women on opposite sides of the astral plane battle for their husband’s affections. As for Charles, he wants to find a way to send Elvira back to wherever she came from. But he has second thoughts once his screenplay starts coming together with her help. The complications go without saying.
Hall keeps things pretty light, only teasing us with the devious black comedy that this could have been. There’s definitely the material for something equally wacky but more darkly funny. But those things are left for the what-could-have-been. Instead “Blithe Spirit” is content with a more playful approach, sneaking in some occasional innuendo and leaving the darker potential buried under the surface. It’s a shame really because even though what we get is breezy and easy to watch, the movie lacks an edge that it hints at but doesn’t embrace.
It’s the performances that end up carrying the audience through. Stevens has a real knack for playing offbeat and slightly neurotic men. Here he once again shows off his comic chops, skittishly fluttering about in various states of distress. Some of the film’s funniest moments lean on his wild-eyed physicality. Fisher brings a needed charm to an otherwise constrained character. Mann is entertaining and does the best she can with Elvira who is in desperate need of more depth. Together the trio have a fun chemistry and play off each other well. Dench ends up being the odd person out. She gives a terrific performance but unfortunately her character seems disconnected at times and operating at a completely different temperature. It’s not Dench’s fault. It’s simply how the Madame Arcati is written. It’s as if she belongs in a much different movie.
“Blithe Spirit” isn’t without its charms and their are some laugh-out-loud moments of sly dialogue and slapstick humor that really work. But there’s still the feeling that the movie misses an opportunity to be more. The characters need more work which leaves the story in a weird place. On one hand it’s a knowingly silly and diverting comedy. On the other it lacks the vigor and go-for-it spirit to make it something memorable. “Blithe Spirit” opens today in select theaters and on VOD.
VERDICT- 2.5 STARS