First, the good stuff: casting comedic gems like Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, and Leslie Mann in a screwball Noel Coward adaptation is an inspired idea. Now this is a trio of game performers who always seem keenly aware of what sort of film they’re in and how to best elevate it. The problem, of course, is how to elevate a film that happens to be, well, just sort of bad. Edward Hall’s “Blithe Spirit” isn’t terribly ill-conceived, a slightly modernized (at least, in theme) version of the classic Noel Coward play — which has already been adapted for the screen by everyone from David Lean to Coward himself — with a wonderful cast and dazzling period details, that still manages to fall short of even limited expectations. Somewhat hilariously, it’s a film about divine inspiration, and one that lacks any real ingenuity, from heaven or elsewhere.
Based on Coward’s still-popular 1941 stage play, this “Blithe Spirit” has been the victim of an awkward update from screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, who appear to have mostly stripped the screwball charms of the original for odd parts. Again, some of those choices — like to lean more heavily on questions of inspiration in the form of writer’s block and a winking dose of Old Hollywood dazzle — aren’t bad ideas at all, but thrusting them inside a narrative that tosses out the classic charms of Coward’s work all but ensures their failure. Paired with the duo’s apparent disdain for the fizzily funny second half of the play — here, wrestled into a laborious final few minutes, with major changes to boot — this “Blithe Spirit” is but a ghostly version of its many predecessors.
Things start well enough, at least, with Stevens tapping directly into his best comedic impulses as the addled crime writer Charles Condomine. Beset by a terrible case of writer’s block — he, literally, can only write “HELP,” no other words are coming — and under the gun to write his first screenplay (an adaptation of his own work, a better nod to Coward than most of the film itself) so that Hollywood can turn it into a zippy feature film. So far, so good, with Charles stuffing his blank pages into his mouth out of pure frustration, while his darling wife Ruth (Fisher) sallies about their country home, enjoying all the spoils of life in 1937 England (mostly, good clothes and lots of booze).
Convinced some real-world inspiration might help, Charles and Ruth opt to take in a night of live entertainment, care of visiting charlatan Madame Cecily Arcati (Dame Judi Dench, having fun), a so-called medium whose entire shtick is rooted in a well-pulled rope here and there. See, Charles’ would-be script is about a dead guy who communicates through a spiritualist, and even though he knows Madame Arcati is full of it, he still thinks a seance might shake loose some good ideas. What he can’t possibly have counted on is the existence of an actual medium, who accidentally delivers his dead first wife Elvira (Mann) back to this earthly plane, where she’s more than happy to really stir things up.
Sounds like a great screwball concept, right? Coward certainly thought so, and his original play was mostly concerned with the wacky wonders of Charles juggling two wives, both earthly and astral. But this “Blithe Spirit” is less about the fizzy interplay between the trio — and, in particular, the very different Elvira and Ruth, who have been flattened into far too similar characters here — and more about the real cause of Charles’ writer’s block. Some of these attempts to modernize it are amusing (one character gushes over just loving Charles’ “strong-willed female characters,” when the big joke is that they’re all the product of a real woman), but mostly, the film feels padded out with new additions just for the hell of it.
At just 95 minutes, the film’s relatively short running time still feels stretched to the limits. A decided lack of dizzy, silly, fizzy screwball fun beyond a few scattered moments doesn’t help matters. Stevens, Fisher, and Mann might be a strong fit for the original material — can we cast them in a remake of this remake? — but this bloated, limping version of Coward’s play seems oddly disengaged from what made the source material so delightful in the first place. It’s the cinematic equivalent of day-old champagne: the taste is almost there, but the bubbles disappeared long ago.
IFC Films will release “Blithe Spirit” in select theaters, on digital, and on demand on Friday, February 19.
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