“Your thrombus is the key to your future,” we are warned by one of the many memorable personalities in “Hysteria.” There’s a sentence you don’t hear very often. It’s part of phrenology, the study of skull patterns to determine personality and other unexpected things. It’s also entirely ridiculous, but was just as highly regarded in the late 19th century as the medical usefulness of leeches. If you focus on the constant typhus and cholera epidemics of pre-germ theory Europe, you’re liable to get depressed. If, on the other hand, you concentrate on the total absurdity of pre-modern scientific ideas there’s a good chance you’ll collapse into hysterics.
Director Tanya Wexler and writers Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer take full advantage, giving us a truly hilarious look at the oppressive scientific ideas that used to surround female sexuality. The based-on-true-events story is that of Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who is having trouble finding work in the squalor of London’s old-fashioned hospitals (which are portrayed with the dark sensibility of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”). He finally ends up working for Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), an expert in female hysteria. The basis of the practice, built around this now-defunct sexually-associated diagnosis, is *ahem* manual stimulation. Initially Dr. Granville gets along just fine, developing well-intentioned feelings for his superior’s morally fibrous phrenologist daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). Yet her sister, the passionate suffragette and social activist Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), throws everything off-kilter.
Everything comes into question when Charlotte’s feminist ideals muck up the very idea of hysteria. The “condition” is even (or perhaps most) disturbing conceptually. Any complaint on the part of a woman can be considered hysterical, especially if it makes a man uncomfortable. The idea that she just needs to be given a manual “paroxysm” to calm down is particularly unsettling. Yet this is the 1880s, well before women even had the right to vote. Any serious confrontation with such institutionalized sexism is inevitably going to be rough, no matter how convincing Charlotte’s arguments may be.
The young doctor’s tenuous and naïve stance between classic medical sexism and the wave of the future supplies the film’s serious thematic material. The heart of the movie, however, is in its hilarity. The scenes of hysteria “treatment” are absolutely side-splitting, pairing the stone-faced doctors with women writhing in pitch-perfect comic ecstasy. Characters are constantly letting slip unconscious double-entendres that will keep you roaring throughout. The supporting cast has impeccable comic timing, from the more familiar face of Gemma Jones to the virtually unrecognizable Rupert Everett and the many perfectly-cast female patients. There’s verbal wit, hilarious physical comedy and consistently expert timing that exacts more laughter from the audience than any film I’ve seen in months. From the opening sequence of patient interviews to the end credits, giggles and guffaws galore.
There have been a number of terrible R-rated studio comedies to hit the big screen this year, romcoms as well as raunch (sometimes both). The strength of “Hysteria” is that it avoids the biggest problems of this summer’s similarly dirty comedies while staying unrelentingly hilarious. This year’s romcoms have failed because they can’t figure out how to avoid those oppressively boring last 30-45 minutes, in which we watch our leading couple come together in the face of flimsy and contrived adversity. “Hysteria,” by being interested in themes beyond the inane love affair of two yuppies, keeps us away from boredom. It’s refreshing.
It’s also just plain funny. There isn’t a single ounce of the frustrating lack of respect that has tended to show up in this summer’s “white dudes behaving badly” comedies. I know that one can make the argument that “The Hangover: Part 2” was funny in spite of being racially insensitive and homophobic and that “The Change-Up” was funny in spite of being a bit misogynist. “Hysteria,” however, isn’t funny in spite of anything. It’s really exciting to see a clever, well-written and marvelously paced movie that doesn’t alienate anybody. And after a summer that included such gems as “Horrible Bosses,” with Jennifer Aniston’s frankly embarrassing character that required “the crazy fucked out of her,” “Hysteria” is an extremely welcome addition to movie humor.