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Though Lady of the Manor, written and directed by brothers Justin Long and Christian Long, centers on the meeting of a Reconstruction-era ghost (Judy Greer) and a modern-day pothead (Melanie Lynskey), that’s not the most surprising thing about it. No, that would be how tedious and misguided the film turns out to be. Despite the enjoyable chemistry between its leads and a promisingly offbeat premise, the buddy comedy does a better job of betraying its filmmakers’ lack of imagination than it does conjuring any real laughs.
On a bland, cheap-looking set meant to represent a lavish mansion in 1875 Savannah, Georgia, the prim and proper Lady Wadsworth (Greer) gets into an argument with her boorish husband (Ryan Phillippe), which ends in her mysterious death. (He maintains that she slipped down the stairs.) More than two centuries later, Hannah (Lynskey), a down-on-her-luck weed dealer, stumbles into a job portraying Lady Wadsworth for historical tours of her former home, now operated by a spoiled-rotten Wadsworth heir named Tanner (also Phillippe).
Lady of the Manor
Release date: Friday, Sept. 17
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Justin Long, Luis Guzmán, Ryan Phillippe
Director-screenwriters: Justin Long, Christian LongRated R, 1 hour 36 minutes
Not long into her disastrous stint in the job — Hannah’s tours consist of her making shit up and trying halfheartedly to cover for the rude things she blurts to her guests — Lady Wadsworth returns in spectral form, determined to force Hannah to mend her sloppy ways and restore her good reputation. The ghost’s efforts take the form of tutoring sessions in everything from etiquette to diction to bread-making, and if you think it’s hilarious that the word “diction” sounds like it has the word “dick” in it, has Lady of the Manor got the joke for you. (That’s it, right there. That’s the entire joke.)
Still, the extended montage of Hannah’s progress is Lady of the Manor at its most engaging, because it’s one of the few times the film scales back its groanworthy dialogue and clumsy plot twists enough to let its star performances shine through. Lynskey brings the same airtight commitment to hot mess Hannah that she does to all her varied roles, while Greer puts her expressive face to use reacting to Hannah’s countless missteps. Their odd-couple bond reads as warm and genuine, and is one of the few elements of Lady of the Manor that works at all.
Unfortunately, even their chemistry isn’t enough to paper over the film’s deficiencies in other areas. There’s a love triangle between Hannah, Tanner and a nerdy professor named Max (Justin Long) that relies more on the audience’s understanding of how such a dynamic is supposed to unfold in a movie than in any believable connection between any of the characters or performers: Of course she falls for the wrong guy, even though their latest interaction ended with him jacking off in her bathroom, and of course the right guy reassures her she’s good at lots of things, even though neither he nor we have seen any evidence to support such a claim.
More egregiously, the movie’s central plot concerns righting the wrongs of the Wadsworth family’s past, which vaguely invokes the legacy of slavery while refusing to meet it head-on, and which hangs on a couple of Black characters (employees of Wadsworth Manor, played by Tamara Austin and Wallace Jean) who are left to twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines until the script needs them to prove a point. It’s resolved by way of a development so implausible it’s almost insulting, but which the film presents as a moment of righteous triumph.
Perhaps Lady of the Manor‘s narrative missteps would be easier to forgive if it landed some solid jokes, but it manages exactly one. (“What do you call this worldwide web of information?” Lady Wadsworth marvels upon encountering Google for the first time. “The internet,” Hannah replies. There, I saved you 96 minutes.) Mostly, its humor rests on the assumption that dildos, farts and naughty words are so inherently funny that no other assembly is required, and repeating these themes over and over again is comedy enough. It’s a drag not because it’s juvenile, but because it’s just plain lazy.
But that’s par for the course for Lady of the Manor. And, in a way, that works in the movie’s favor: If it’s too uninspired to love, it’s also too half-assed to inspire real hatred. Occasional hints of nastiness are downplayed with a shrug, and gestures toward deeper commentary on femininity or patriarchy or modern sexuality are dropped before they can land in hot water. An end-credits blooper reel suggests that the cast and crew had fun on set, which is nice — at least someone got a good time out of Lady of the Manor. It’s just too bad that this someone is unlikely to be the audience.
Production companies: House of John Productions, Hungry Bull Productions, Digital Caviar, The Other Cabin Productions
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Justin Long, Patrick Duffy, Luis Guzmán, Ryan Phillippe, Tamara Austin, Wallace Jean
Director-screenwriters: Justin Long, Christian Long
Producers: Tony Stopperan, Joseph Restaino, Dori Rath, Michael E. Brown, Justin Long, Christian Long
Executive producers: Todd Yonteck, Santosh Govindaraju, Adam Yeremian
Director of photography: Nick Morgulis
Production designer: Shawn Carroll
Costume designer: Fernando A. Rodriguez
Editor: Annette Davey
Music: Craig Wedren, Bo Boddie
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