Not the next room: Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria

I really wanted to like Hysteria, Tanya Wexler’s period comedy about the invention of the vibrator. I wanted to like it even more when Wexler herself showed up unexpectedly at City Cinemas on the night that I saw it, to introduce the film to the eight people in the huge room and to thank us for coming out.

Unfortunately, after the third romantic speech about how women can be whimsical and logical and emotional and intelligent — all at once! — I had to like it less. The movie has a lot of issues: the editing and pacing was way off, and Maggie Gyllenhaal was doing her best exaggerated Katharine Hepburn to Hugh Dancy’s under-caffeinated Hugh Grant, and why was Dancy the main character instead of Gyllenhaal, anyway? But what bugged me most of all, given Wexler’s thinking-woman-director bona fides, was how sloppy and retro Hysteria was about its gender-role rhetoric. Aren’t women lovely and crazy and unpredictable and deserving of respect and equality, especially when they regularly decide that the best way to get what they want is to go around screaming at their fathers in public and punching policemen?

Gyllenhaal’s character is supposed to be the heroic, blue-stocking free spirit who fights for what she believes in and inspires Dancy to be a better man (of course), but she comes off as kind of nuts and/or dumb. (I also loved the subplot of her looking for a series of loans to support her charity work, when her father refuses to support her and the school she runs has no apparent way of making any sort of revenue to repay those loans. So she takes out a loan with no apparent means of repayment, to help buy coal and other consumable goods that will soon have to be bought again … yet she somehow not only thinks this is sustainable, she’s hoping to buy the property next door. Maybe it’s my business-reporter bias, but it’s hard to root for a heroine that stupid.)

And yet I feel like I’m letting down the sisterhood by not liking this movie. It’s directed by a woman, its titular topic is female sexuality (and antiquated views thereof), and, well, I missed the (better-reviewed) Sarah Ruhl play on the same subject. I just couldn’t get around the movie itself.