Hysterical Women

"Hysteria" is a light-hearted, romantic comedy based loosely on the true story of one Dr. Mortimer Granville, a young physician in London, in the 1880s, during the height of the Victorian age.

While essentially a good-natured period film, it also is satirical, focusing not only on the practices of 19th-century medicine wherein bleeding, leeches and a debunking of germ theory were de rigueur, but on the strict formality and closeted impulses of the Victorians.

It was during the 1880s that physicians crafted what would be a catchall diagnosis known as "female hysteria," one that included all manner of emotional ailments that seemed to afflict Victorian women.

Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a progressive doctor whose belief in germs and rigorous cleansing of wounds puts him at odds with other doctors. He is fired from his hospital, finds himself out of work and feeling a bit desperate.

He applies for a position with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who has a lucrative practice treating prominent women who suffer from hysteria, apparently an affliction of epic proportions in London.

Dalrymple's prescription for such women — willful and opinionated, some flirting with the suffragette movement, others obsessed with "hungry thoughts" — is a course of pelvic manipulation resulting in a "hysterical paroxysm" which, as he demonstrates, offers some respite.

Granville finds himself treating a waiting room filled with hysterical women, to the point that he develops carpal tunnel. He begins to wonder if the endearing, dogmatic opinions of Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a feminist, who judges her father's practice as frivolous, might be closer to the truth than not.

While the film reveals a state of medicine that seems today to defy the Hippocratic admonition, "Do no harm" — there are scenes in a hospital of best practices that are shocking given our assumptions about the connection between cleanliness, germs and sepsis — it also focuses on the conditions facing women: They had no vote, were second-class citizens and few economic opportunities. Those women who rebelled were often diagnosed as hysterics and confined to asylums where they were subjected to hysterectomies.

Having said that, "Hysteria" is a charming and comedic film, and it refuses to take itself too seriously. While it touches often on the abundantly priggish attitudes of Victorians, it is embedded with a sweet romance between Charlotte and Mortimer, one slow to develop and one that the audience anticipates long before they do.

There is not a shred of prurience in the film; it is never gratuitous when it comes to exploring "female hysteria" or the invention of the artificial stimulator, capable of producing multiple paroxysms — a device viewed by one and all as medicinal and never as erotic.

But then the Victorians were proper to a fault, able to disguise or deny or ignore countless aspects of our humanity, often to the point of putting pantaloons on piano legs.

That's My Boy

Those who love movies, who value a modicum of fine writing and storytelling, narratives buttressed by excellent acting and compelling images, will find Adam Sandler's recent "That's My Boy" offensive drivel.

To be fair, Sandler has made some entertaining, even touching films ("The Wedding Singer," "Spanglish"), most PG-13, most mildly comedic and interesting; a few serious dramas even resonated. So why would he deliberately choose to drive off a cinematic cliff and make a movie that is profoundly vulgar, crude and puerile, absent any serious attempt at creating characters worth caring about? Instead, all are contemptible caricatures.

The story is shallow to the point of nonexistence, and making the movie seems a desperate attempt by Sandler to showcase a taste for all that is raunchy and mean-spirited and ultimately cynical.

Sadly, countless superb films, well-acted and well-written, never find distributors and so never have an opportunity to be seen by a wide audience.

And yet, somehow, this foul, vulgar movie, lifted from the back of a toilet stall door, was made and will contribute only to the coarsening and dumbing-down of the moviegoing experience.

If Sandler still has a fan base — hopefully they are growing bored with his shtick — perhaps they will finally conclude that his films are frayed beyond repair and his mouthful of marbles monologues are silly to the point of despair. But then again, maybe not.

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