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"SHIRLEY"
(2020) (Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A young married couple agrees to stay with a professor and his mentally ill writer wife who eventually bonds with the younger woman.
PLOT:

It's the mid 20th century and Rose (ODESSA YOUNG) and Fred Nemser (LOGAN LERMAN) have arrived in a college town in Vermont where Fred is to work as the teaching assistant to professor Stanley Hyman (MICHAEL STUHLBARG) at an all-female college. While the young women adore him, his wife, novelist Shirley Jackson (ELISABETH MOSS), is the true star of the family, although her mental illness and agoraphobia have left her housebound for some time.

That and her creative block have grown both worrisome and tiresome to Stanley who offers the Nemsers free room and board at the house if Rose will help cook and clean and Fred will help lessen some of Stanley's workload. The young couple is reluctant but agrees to the offer, with Rose initially not liking Shirley's brash behavior despite being a fan of her work. But Rose's presence helps partially bring Shirley out of her mental stupor and focus on a missing college student named Paula (ODESSA YOUNG) as the possible source for her next book.

As that writing commences and Rose is introduced to the academic world of unfaithful husbands, the two women begin to bond in unexpected ways.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10

Being a WWII veteran, my dad was always hypercritical of accuracy in movies about that worldwide conflict. While I'd be engaged by the action, drama, and suspense, he'd always be nitpicking the fine details of how certain planes wouldn't fly this way or that, the command on Navy ships and so on.

Obviously, we had different expectations, with him wanting realism while I desired enthralling entertainment. Filmmakers are often stuck in that conundrum of being faithful to the truth while also making something that will appeal to and engage viewers, meaning artistic liberties are usually deployed to find some sort of happy medium.

Granted, sometimes cinematic storytellers go a little overboard with such creative license, bending some (and sometimes a lot) of the truth to meet whatever their vision goal might be. Such would seem to be the case with "Shirley," a loose, slice-of-the-moment biopic about American author Shirley Jackson who died at the age of 48 after penning six novels -- including "The Haunting of Hill House" -- and scads of short stories such as "The Lottery" (a work published in 1948 in The New Yorker that clearly inspired the similarly themed "The Purge" movie many decades later).

As the film opens, we see a young woman, Rose (Odessa Young), reading that short story and -- for whatever twisted reason -- getting so turned on that she and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), join the "Railway Express Club" via an amorous rendezvous on the train they're riding heading for a Vermont college town. There, he's to help reduce the workload for Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) a professor at an all-female college and who just so happens to be married to novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss).

She's your typical troubled artist type who obviously suffers from some sort of mental illness that's not only left her agoraphobic but also suffering from complete writer's block, something that concerns but also angers him.

The charming but arrogant professor manages to convince the young couple to live in their house, offering free room and board in exchange for Rose doing the cooking and cleaning, something that doesn't initially sit well with her, and that's even before learning he's a handsy lech with a thing for coeds. She also quickly comes to dislike the author -- despite obviously being a fan (and then some) of her work -- for her prickly and unfiltered demeanor and behavior, such as telling Fred she hopes the baby Rose is yet to deliver is his.

From that point on, Rose starts to warm up to the writer and ends up somewhat acting as Shirley's muse. That's especially true as related to a local missing college student's case that the author thinks would be good fodder for her next work, imaging the young woman to look quite similar to Rose (and in those scenes, she's also played by Young).

At this point, the story seems ready to segue into a true-crime drama or thriller with Shirley's work eventually solving the mystery and maybe revealing the identity of the killer. Could it be her husband who was having an affair with the young woman? Or is the author going all "Basic Instinct" and writing the conveniently similar story to cover her own crime?

Well, I hate to disappoint anyone liking the sound of that, but that's not what director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins -- who's adapted Susan Scarf Merrell's novel of the same name -- are after. And since they've altered so much of the truth -- the young couple are fiction, the older couple's children don't exist in this world and the real Jackson's buoyant personality has been abolished in favor of something approaching psycho-writer status -- I have a feeling that the entire film is meant as a flight of fancy designed to represent the author's imagination operating on all cylinders and perhaps even running amok while formulating and then writing her next work.

And beyond the artistic license, I say that based on the filmmaker's often surreal expression of visualizing this tale and her protagonist. Not surprisingly, Moss is superb in the role, and not just from the uncanny physical resemblance. Hers is an unstable and unpredictable character that you simply can't help but watch in anticipation of what she might next do or say. Stuhlbarg is great as well, creating a mesmerizingly charming but arrogant and ultimately hateable lech.

While constructed and operating more in an observer and reactive character than an active one, Young is also good as the new expectant wife who has her eyes opened through her interaction with Jackson. Only Lerman is a bit of a disappointment, not because of the performance but due to an underwritten accessory role.

In the end, the realism nitpickers who know every aspect of the author's life will likely be frustrated by the rampant artistic liberties taken with the truth. For those simply looking for entertainment, the performances are good, but the artsy direction and not always cohesive script keep me from gushing over this. Decent enough and certainly interesting but not great, "Shirley" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed June 2, 2020 / Posted June 5, 2020


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