The opening credits for the new comedy “Hysteria,” starring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal, informs us that “this story is based on true events. Really.” Really? The story is about how the vibrator was accidentally invented back in the prudish days of Victorian England.
Dancy’s Dr. Mortimer Granville has forward-looking ideas about medicine – no leeches, no bleeding of his patients – that consistenly get him into trouble. Needing a job, he winds up as the assistant to Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, at his most archly comic), who specializes in treating female “hysteria” by manually releasing their “nervous tension.” He also has two daughters, the prim and marriageable Emily (Felicity Jones) and the abrasive suffragette Charlotte (Gyllenahaal). Guess who Mortimer falls for?
When Mortimer’s wealthy, rakish inventor friend Edmund (a very funny Rupert Everett) comes up with the idea for the vibrator, Dalrymple’s practice takes off. Director Tanya Wexler and her screenwriters, Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, are more at home with sexual shenanigans than suffragette posturings. It’s as if they felt they had to work all that socially conscious stuff into the mix in order to justify the risqué humor. Even the humor is played too broadly – another notch and we’d be in “Monty Python” territory, though not half as witty.
Perhaps the funniest thing about “Hysteria” is Gyllenhaal’s comment at a press conference for it at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. She called it “the feel-good film of the year.” Grade: C+ (Rated R for sexual content.)