By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist September 14, 2011 at 10:11AM
It turns out all Sabina Spielrein needed to get over her hysteria was not Freud or Jung or the talking cure, but just a really good fingering. Indeed, the course of sexuality and/or psychoanalysis might have been irrevocably altered had Sabina taken a trip to London to visit Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), in "Hysteria," a "based on true events" comedy about the invention of the vibrator. But like any bad lover, the film is heavy on foreplay but when it finally takes its pants off, the resulting encounter is less than satisfying.
When we first meet Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), he's been fired from yet another hospital for adapting his medical procedure to align with the relatively new germ theory that runs counter to the leeches and dubious pills approach that London doctors have been using thus far. Defeated and pretty close to giving up on the profession altogether, Mortimer finds new hope when he joins the practice run by Dr. Dalrymple. Specializing in taking on cases of hysteria, the doctor forgoes traditional methods of employing hot or cold baths and other such extreme practices, and instead -- very professionally of course -- fingerbangs his patients until orgasm, thus "curing" their "symptoms" of nervousness and anxiety. Mortimer is intrigued and with great zeal begins working side-by-side with Dalrymple and much of the comedy comes from these two doctors rationalizing and/or denying their services are anything but medical and scientific in nature.
Things are going swimmingly for Mortimer as he's not only part of a successful practice, but his bright future may also include Dalrymple's accomplished and beautiful daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) as well. But even the strongest of men will experience a hand cramp once in a while in the process of delivering so much manual pleasure (a procedure Dalrymple compares to "patting your head and rubbing your tummy"), now multiply that by eight hours a day and multiple women, and you might understand the physical pain Mortimer begins to feel. Fearing he'll lose the facility to continue his livelihood, a solution is found in the workshop of Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), Mortimer's wealthy friend, benefactor and fabulous dandy whose immense fortune allows him to avoid regular work and spend his time tinkering with electronics and fooling around with a new invention called the telephone. It's in Edmund's living room/workshop that Mortimer has a eureka moment and soon enough he's probing the nether regions of a prostitute-turned-maid to test out a device that will revolutionize his practice and women's sexuality.
Given that this is the premise of the entire movie, it's a shame that it takes two-thirds of the running time to get there. In between all these fingerings, lazy puns and easily amusing but forgettable jokes about proper ladies getting their rocks off, there is a subplot involving Dalrymple's other daughter, the fiercely independent Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She is a socialist on a crusade for women's rights, as well as a tireless advocate of her community-driven project in dirty, poor and dangerous neighborhoods of London. Charlotte tends to rub her upper crust daddy the wrong way (ha!), but earns the reluctant sympathy of Mortimer, who himself was once an orphan. Will they fall in love? Have you ever seen a movie before?
For all of its sexual posturing and potential to be truly saucy and unconventional, Tanya Wexler's "Hysteria" is inoffensively pleasant. The performances across the board are all as good as they need to be (though Jones is somewhat wasted in a role that doesn't require her to do much other than look good in old timey gear and act prim). The story, though slightly meandering, is enjoyable enough but totally predictable, and really, it's like a better than average airplane movie. It's diverting without getting annoying and while you won't regret the time you spend with it, you likely won't remember much either. If the film leaves you with any sort of impression, it's that the script by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer leaves the most interesting (and hilarious) character to the side. Everett walks away with the whole movie as Edmund, stealing entire scenes at times with little more than a grunt or a single word. In fact, the idea of this admitted sexual pervert (read: gay) free to indulge in any endeavor and whim in 1880s London sounds like a future Wes Anderson movie (or just a much more interesting film in general).
There isn't much to "Hysteria," which never builds to a full froth the way its title and subject matter promise that they could. It's the vibrator comedy movie you could watch with your mom that eventually turns into a very average rom-com where one guy chases down the girl he wasn't interested in until the last twenty minutes of the movie when he realizes she's the one he should really be with. But whether or not he decides to use his hand or his latest invention on the honeymoon is something we guess we'll have to find out in the sequel (or leave to our filthy imaginations). [C]