A biopic about a writer is the surest way for filmmakers to demonstrate their shallowness. Stymied by the effort of visualizing a sedentary activity completed in solitude, directors from Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend), Fred Zinnemann (Julia), and Andrew Walker (Starting Out in the Evening) have stumbled. Good films like Some Came Running (1958) rely on Shirley MacLaine for pathos and a chipper Dean Martin for distraction. Screenwriters assume writers talk like writers, hence dialogue that sounds like blank verse dumped into a wood chipper. Even David Cronenberg’s droll Naked Lunch needs Mugwumps and pretty Moroccan boys.
Shirley, alas, ends up in the middle of the pack. Working from Sarah Gubbins’ pedestrian, literal adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s biography, Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) mixes handheld cameras, voice-over, a frenzied score — anything to evoke the addled mind of Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House and “The Lottery,” the much anthologized short story. I find this approach condescending not just to writers but to those suffering from mental trauma: the cinematic equivalent of second-rate novelists using pages of dialect as a concession to realism but comes off like a pillorying of characters whom their creator dismisses as intellectually feeble.
In 1948, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) travels to Bennington College accompanying her husband, hired to help professor-critic-horndog Stanley Edgar Hyman with his teaching. Reading “The Lottery” in The New Yorker the week of publication has such a devastating effect on Rose that it inspires panting sex in the train bathroom with Fred (Logan Lerman, who looks a bit and plays the part like Campbell Scott), surely a milestone in the annals of publishing. The atmosphere in the Jackson-Hyman home aspires to be, to quote All About Eve‘s stick-in-the-mud playwright Lloyd Richards, distinctly Macbeth-ish but is closer to dinner theater Albee, thanks to the self-satisfied performance of Michael Stuhlbarg as Hyman and Elizabeth Moss’ bug-eyed work as Jackson. Comatose from a diet of cocktails and cigarettes, Jackson bestirs herself only when can shred Rose and Fred. Soon, in exchange for room and board, the visibly pregnant Rose becomes housekeeper of this hovel.
In an example of this film’s pedantry, that much trampled line between reality and fiction — it exists? — gets stamped out as passages from the novel Jackson wills herself to write and intends as her breakthrough seem to alter the fates of the characters or something. Hints of desire, much like the ones between the two young women in The Haunting of Hill House, flicker. But what Decker intends is unfathomable, neither an illumination nor even much of a camp delight. An exception: Rose, in the midst of an erotic epiphany, digs through the dirt like Nicole Kidman in 2002’s entombed The Hours only she’s not Virginia Woolf,much less Shirley Jackson.