I’m having a premonition. The spirits, they speak to me. They tell me that I will warn you that the new Blithe Spirit is woefully bad, and you will not believe me. Take heart in knowing that I don’t blame you. All the signs point to this remake being a jolly good romp. And yet…
Adapted from the 1941 NoÃ«l Coward play, Blithe Spirit should boast a biting wit while unfurling an otherworldly love-triangle tale. Headlined by Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann, Dan Stevens, and Judi Dench, it should be kicking with charisma and crackerjack comedic flare. And yet! This film falls frightfully flat.
In this Edward Hall-directed remake, Stevens stars as Charles Condomine, a wealthy English novelist who is struggling to script a screenplay. His second wife Ruth (Fisher) is growing flustered by his writer’s block, and so suggests a seance might spark inspiration. Enter Judi Dench as Madame Cecily Arcati, a mystic who has faced public embarrassment but rallies to actually/accidentally call up the dead! Specifically, she invites the ghost of Charles’ lusty first wife Elvira (Mann) back into his home. Haunting hijinks ensue.
A brassy American with a cruel comic sensibility and a gift for storytelling, Elvira is just what Charles needs to get going on his screenplay. Poor Ruth has exactly what she wanted: Charles is writing! However, she feels threatened by a romantic rival who is dead yet nonetheless seductive. To win this whimpering wet noodle of a man, these women wage war with shattered plates, tricky invocations, kinky hookups, and slipping a mickey of meth! This adaptation, scripted by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcroft, attempts to give vintage comedy new life with such saucy surprises and a revised final act. However, these tweaks feel superficial and not exactly fun.
Blithe Spirit serves up sex, drugs, betrayal, and murder, yet feels achingly safe. The characters are all sadly shallow. Fisher, who’s shown a skill for playing ditzy divinely, is saddled in a thankless role of a sulking nag. Perhaps she gets a punchline on occasion, but I can’t remember a one. Mann, who has long shined in her husband Judd Apatow’s works, is well-suited to the role of Elvira, shimmying into the sassy American dame with an almost violent vibrancy. She knows how to glow in broad comedy, and leans the farthest into the over-the-top delivery that might have made this shine. (Think the dueling dames of Death Becomes Her, who treated every line like the final word it ought to be! NOW a warning!)
Meanwhile, Dench shrugs off her grand dame gravitas to play a bumbling spiritualist with mischievous mirth. She’s ego-less and entertaining but is given little to do beyond cooing “oooh” and allowing bland bits of physical comedy to fly about her. And that brings us at long last to Stevens, who deserves much, much better.
Five years ago, this mesmerizing English actor fled Downton Abbey to embrace roles more challenging than dashing leading man. Since then, he’s been cutting loose with outrageous offerings like the psychedelic superhero drama Legion and unnerving horror films like The Guest, The Rental, and the deeply grotesque Apostle. In the animated fantasy series Kipo and the Wonderbeasts, his flair for the dramatic was thrillingly channeled into the voice of a cackling and tyrannical mandrill named Scarlemagne. And of course, last summer he bestowed upon us the gift of a sultry Russian pop god in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
This is all to say that Stevens has been chiseling out a career sparking with eccentricity, wildness, and comedic brilliance. He might well evolve into the next Nic Cage, and I absolutely mean that as a compliment. However, here, he is shackled with the kind of role you think he’d escape. Moaning on about his writer’s block, yearning for his dead wife while eye-rolling over his live one, Charles is not a complex character but a common grousing douchebag. He’s tiresome even when played by Stevens, who struggles with what to do beyond wiggle his mustache and speak in a gratingly posh accent.
Indeed, Hall has created a pretty little cage for his talented cast. The 1936 English mansion is gilded in luxurious decor and eye-catching curios. The actors are draped in colorful plumage of period clothes with dramatic silhouettes or dynamic fabrics. Yet the tone of the movie is doggedly jaunty, making even the dark turns feel one-note. Stodgy close-ups trap his performers in suffocating frames, when comedy LIVES in the wide shot. Their connection to each other severed so casually has a deadly impact on the humor hitting.
All in all, Blithe Spirit is a jaw-dropping misfire. Its cast is misused, its story marred. Amid the mugging and glad rags, this adaptation feels like a pale imitation of what’s come before, a garish ghost going through the motions unaware it’s dead.
Blithe Spirit opens in select theaters, on digital and On Demand on February 19.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.