A film about horror author Shirley Jackson turns into “Tales of East Coast Liberal Arts College Professors” in “Shirley,” Elisabeth Moss’ high-on-itself new schlep.
The slow drama fictionalizes several months in the life of Shirley Jackson (Moss), the writer who gave us “The Haunting of Hill House,” as a smiley young couple comes to stay with Jackson and her husband, Stanley, in Vermont in the 1950s.
Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a stereotypical literature professor and scumbag at Bennington College, enjoys hearing his own voice and cheating on his wife — with permission! Already celebrated, the cat-lady-like Jackson is going through a state of writer’s block and her pig husband, who gets food stuck in his beard, constantly pushes her to work harder.
The boarders, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), are there because Fred is going to be Stanley’s teaching assistant, however he aspires to one day work at the college full time. Shirley, meanwhile, becomes infatuated with Rose, and the bright-eyed woman soon emerges as the inspiration for her next novel.
I’ll give director Josephine Decker this: She gives her film the frightful tension of a horror movie, even if nothing horrific happens (unless you count red wine spilled on a couch). In fact, not much of anything happens in “Shirley,” which instead tries to sell itself with mood and psychology.
But whatever sophisticated point Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins aim for here is undone by its pretentious academic characters, whose arrogant droning would make you switch seats if you were next to them at a coffee shop.
Stanley criticizes Fred’s dissertation for being “derivative” and gives towering speeches about the ills of mediocrity, while discussing the college dean’s upcoming Christmas party. It’s hell with foliage.
Stuhlbarg is a wonderful actor, who doesn’t get enough credit for his roles in “Call Me by Your Name” and “The Shape of Water,” among many others. But it’s hard here to not have an aversion to both his a–hole character and his ringmaster-sized performance.
Moss, intriguing as ever, certainly has weird down pat. Her acting here resembles the kind of woman we used to mistakenly send to asylums. Often, Shirley will all of a sudden make some loud and rude remark that feels neither natural nor honest. Only cuckoo.
The best of the lot is Young, who in this less-clever “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” keeps us guessing as to what she wants and how she feels about Shirley, Stanley and her own husband. Young is giving a film performance while everyone else is onstage.