The very essence of comedy, the one thing that it can truly be boiled down to if needed, is entertainment which intends to make an audience laugh. Blithe Spirit purports to be such a piece of entertainment, yet its intentions lack anything to laugh at, so much so, that it would be arguable that humor and wit were the furthest things from what was on its mind.
This tale of pitiful personalities takes place in England in 1937, a time when, apparently, zero chemistry was required for all relationships, be them romantic, friendly, or even paternal. Walking snack, Dan Stevens plays Charles Condomine, a successful novelist struggling to churn out the next big piece: his first screenplay. While it is confusing just exactly what he is trying to do (it is inferred many times that he is simply adapting a previous novel, yet he is stricken with writer’s block, and we see multiple scenes of seemingly original content and dialogue being created. What?), the film has one small added pitch: What if the writer’s dead wife was helping him write the screenplay? Here’s where I’ll get the joke: “It feels like someone’s dead wife wrote THIS screenplay,” out of the way so that we can all move on. With the return of his deceased wife’s (Leslie Mann) spirit at the befuddled hands of a medium fraud (Judi Dench), Condomine is forced to deal with the feelings he may still harbor for his ex-love, even as these feelings begin to infuriate his current wife (Isla Fisher).
There are many movies that Blithe Spirit thinks it is, and even more that it is trying to be. The modern-piece throwback to the Golden Age of Moviemaking and all its quirks in the film industry is ripe with situational humor and in-the-know winks and nods, yet this movie takes advantage of none of them. Based on the popular play by Noël Coward, one can see the seams where adaptation began to diverge from the original texts' intended bravado, which isn’t particularly a bad thing, but it does no favors to a movie that is literally about adaptation and it never seems to understand that there is at least something there to be played with for humor. But, to be fair, there’s a lot in this movie that should be funny which falls flat due to misshapen dialogue, the occasional overuse of editing or a general look and tone held tightly throughout that makes one feel like they’re watching a Drunk History segment with the funny voiceover removed.
While watching the film, I kept finding myself vanishing even deeper within my own soul. This isn’t to say I wasn’t paying attention at any point in the film. This is my job, and it is a nice job to have, so for 99 minutes, I paid attention to this movie, a movie that at several instances seemed to be directly and intentionally attempting to make me die. Is this the worst movie ever made? Far from it. Is it bad? Oh, sweet lord yes.
The lack of laughs is not the only sin on display here (although it is probably the major one). The film’s manic style and attitude are constantly working against anything it is trying to communicate. Scenes are either chopped up and scrambled together in moments of shot-reverse-shot with multiple camera angles being plopped down at different takes, with character’s appearances noticeably changing over the course of an intended one-minute discussion, or they are extended into long takes where we are just watching a couple of people in a room talking to each other with little motivation for plot and zero sense of situational dynamics. The audience is practically begging for someone to just trip over something already so that they can see something happen and have characters react to it comedically.
And this, again, is the major issue I have with Blithe Spirit. It’s just not funny. I don’t need pathos in everything I watch, and I sure as hell don’t demand top-notch filmmaking from start to finish, but if you’re going to call yourself a comedy, base your project on the work of a notably very funny writer, and hire an overqualified cast, you should at least be able to bring the goods on the yuck-yucks every once in a while. Thinking back, the only times the film actually got an audible chuckle out of me were times when Dan Stevens would look physically sick from what he was doing (often), repeatedly noticing that there is just music playing ALL THE TIME regardless of what is going on, and whenever legendary Dame Judi Dench, (seen here doing her very best Anthony Hopkins from the Thor movies impersonation), would say the names of very hard to pronounce plants and flowers.
In the end, Blithe Spirit is the type of film that doesn’t seem to care so much about its audience as it does about itself. In a movie that paints all of its characters with the same personality type, with the majority of the plot taking place in a single setting, you’d think there’d be a little movie magic left to go around, but every joke and observational quip land as hard and unfortunate as a convertible falling topside down off a cliff into a sea of anemic monotony.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.