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Movie review: ‘Shirley’ explores haunted life of writer Shirley Jackson

Al Alexander
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This image shows Elisabeth Moss, left, and Odessa Young in a scene from "Shirley."

“I’m not one for the dramatic.” So says Elisabeth Moss in her Bette Davis-lite portrayal of author Shirley Jackson in the starkly titled “Shirley.” That statement is ironic since most of Josephine Decker’s follow-up to 2018’s “Madeline’s Madeline” is a succession of actorly hysterics in service of a Gothic soap opera brimming with lesbian undertones.

Men! Who needs them? That’s the theme driving a script by Sarah Gubbins (TV’s “I Love Dick”) in which she converts Susan Scarf Merrell’s like-titled novel into a dull, plodding fever dream of fact cut with a steady dose of fiction. Yet, her protofeminist approach peculiarly carries as much disdain for her female characters as it does for the feckless, unfaithful men they “love.”

So, what’s to like? I’m still kicking that around in my head. Is my ho-hum reaction to “Shirley” due to the underwhelming narrative or the fact that Decker is that rare director whose status as a critical favorite utterly escapes me, a list she’s joined on by Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”).

At least “Shirley” is watchable, praise I’d never foist upon her impenetrable “Madeline’s Madeline,” although the two works spring from the same idea of real-life trauma inspiring a wicked-brand of artistic expression. In this case, the muse is Shirley’s new house guest, Rose Nemser (sinewy Odessa Young), who travels to sleepy Bennington, Vermont, with her aspiring professor husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), to begin married life residing with a couple that’s perhaps been wedded far too long. Naturally, the interlopers are catnip for Shirley, a self-proclaimed provocateur, and her pretentious, blowhard husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg overdoing the smarm).

From the get-go, you know the reputable scholars will make quick work of the Nemsers and their newlywed bliss. They never have a chance; which makes the eventual standoff between the elders and the naive kids the equivalent of a lopsided football game. That’s assuming the pigskin ever gets tossed around at tony Bennington College, an “all-girls” school where Stanley and Fred teach folklore to a bevy of 1950-era beauties open to a little sis boom bah.

In turn, Shirley and her new gullible companion, Rose - hired to cook, clean and keep tabs on her reclusive host - conspire to push their men back, push them back, way back. With good reason we learn via Fred’s late night dates with bottles of gin and Stanley’s countless episodes of passive-aggressive digs delivered on the rare occasion he’s not out schtupping the dean’s prissy wife.

The goal, apparently, is something akin to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” cross pollinated with “The Shining,” as Shirley sneers, swills booze and attacks her typewriter as if it’s a stand-in for Stanley’s face. I think it’s Decker’s intent to examine how the outside world directly informs the artist, as Shirley - fresh off her acclaimed short story, “The Lottery” - draws inspiration for her psychological thriller, 1951’s “The Hangsaman,” via the real-life disappearance of Bennington College freshman Paula Jean Welden.

As the novel progresses, the now pregnant Rose - under the heavy influence of smokes and drink - finds herself increasingly identifying with Paula Jean, a woman who had to vanish to finally be seen. As hard as they try, Decker and Gubbins never sell the analogy, despite Moss and Young working their butts off. Both are as excellent as Stuhlbarg and Lerman are unlikable and lifeless. Why did these ballsy women marry such drips? Who knows, and “Shirley” isn’t about to tell you. True to most of Jackson’s writings, it’s a mystery.

Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“Shirley”
Cast includes Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman, Available for rent on all streaming platforms beginning Friday.
(For sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images.)
Grade: B-