Without being hysterical itself, “Hysteria” is a mirthfully randy take on the invention of the vibrator. As fun as that hook of a history lesson sounds, the film is alternately amusing and disappointingly slight, playing like a lightly farcical BBC version of “A Dangerous Method.” The title refers to the turn of the 19th century’s catch-all woman ailment, stemming from an overactive uterus. Director Tanya Wexler (with two low-budget pics under her belt) works from a screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer that takes the true history behind the invention of the “massager” and molds it into a perfunctory Victorian romantic-comedy.
London, 1880. Middle-class Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is an idealistic forward-thinker whose modern theories clash with the less-than-sterile medical practices (i.e. leeching) by doctors that believe germs to be “poppycock.” Once he applies to be the assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) lucrative business in treating needy, “hysterical” women suffering from melancholia and anxiety by, uh, stimulating them, Mortimer gets the job. After witnessing Dalrymple’s female patients receive pleasure, a light bulb goes off in Mortimer’s head when fiddling with the latest invention of his friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett): a vibrating, horse-feathered cleaning tool. Mortimer’s a-ha moment spawns the creation of a portable massager for women, and cue all the eager female patients in the waiting room. Meanwhile, Dr. Dalrymple’s angelic, demure daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones), finds it her duty to become Mortimer’s arranged wife, while the other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a spunky, ahead-of-her-time firebrand and unlike any woman Mortimer has ever met. Which sister do you think the modern doc will end up romancing?
When it could have seemed rather skeevy, “Hysteria” is most fun when showing prudish society women experiencing “paroxysms” (the Big O) over the good doctor’s newly patented sex toy. One woman sings opera out of joy and ecstasy. A lot of this stuff isn’t much different from the safest of R-rated sex comedies out of Hollywood. At one point, instead of humping dogs, we get ducks. Then the script puts the vibrator aspect on the back burner (until the end credits) and wanders into courtroom-drama territory about feminist liberation. Overall, the dialogue is occasionally witty but nothing special, and the period production design of London is authentic.
None of this really escalates beyond the frothy and predictable, which is fine and dandy because the cast carries out the proceedings with enthusiasm and charm. Dancy and Gyllenhaal (sporting a strong British accent) are disarming leads, he a naif and she a pre-feminism rebel, but their unconvincing romance falls flat. Felicity Jones, a real find after her emotionally accessible turn in last year’s “Like Crazy,” is relegated to bland wallpaper here. Rupert Everett is fun and lively as the dandy trying to invent a feather duster, even if he’s cast aside for much of the running time. Sheridan Smith is saucy as a minxy maid who becomes Mortimer’s guinea pig. Standing just between coy and naughty, “Hysteria” has enough good vibrations (pun intended) to be a trifling, albeit jolly-good-fun, lark. But aside from the pleasures of watching its first-rate cast having fun, there’s just not enough here to get hot and bothered about.
100 min., rated R.
Grade: C +