Shirley (Decker, 2020)

America has been sheltering at home for a few weeks now, waiting for an excuse to return its attention to the movies while studios hold back their biggest titles to ensure there is something to see when theaters reopen.

I tend to think that makes us ripe for an indie breakout hit. It’s certainly a window for films that would normally be afterthoughts to have a moment in the spotlight. Eventually, one of those movies has to be a huge hit, right?

I don’t think Shirley is going to be that movie. The caustically bitter slice of author Shirley Jackson’s life features a pair of good performances by Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg, but man is it bleak. And I’m not sure we need more bleakness right now. I sure don’t.

For Reader-response critics, the viewing situation matters. If I had seen this sandwiched in between franchise tent poles or as part of a concentrated film festival, I might have been in a better mood to applaud its shrill echoes of the acerbic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Streamed at home in between news cycles filled with protests and pandemics, it was almost enough to induce me to bite the bullet and pay the $20 download fee for a trivial diversion like Scoob!

The film opens with Shirley and Stanley inviting a younger pair of ambitious doppelgangers (he an academic, she a lover of literature) to stay with them rent free — ostensibly to get some free maid service but really just to have someone to mentor in misery. In an early example of their repartee, Stanley offers a toast: “To our suffering, my dear.” She replies that there is “not enough scotch in the world” for such a toast. Mmmm. Lovely.

For a little while, Stanley alternates between pulling the lethargic and creatively blocked Shirley out of bed, claiming that he is taking care of her, and rubbing her nose in his extramarital affairs, which he protests are “well within the bounds of our agreement.” During this part of the movie, it looks like we might get a “What price great art?” film akin to The Wife. One problem with that approach is that very few viewers could likely name another work from Jackson besides “The Lottery” and maybe (if they are film fans) The Haunting of Hill House. Consequently, it’s hard to feign interest in the question of how many layers of happiness were sacrificed in their creation.

Somewhat late in the film, Stanley asks of his colleague’s dissertation, “Do you know how insulted I am by mediocrity?” It’s somewhat damning that I could not tell by that point if the film was being expository or ironically self-referential. Are we watching Capote or Ed Wood? I think the film posits Jackson’s greatness — in an early scene Rose reads and admires “The Lottery” — but I wasn’t sure. Jackson’s place in the canon of great writers is hardly unassailable, and the film might have felt less generic if it had at least entertained the notion that pride and ambition can derail domestic happiness every bit as easily as can genius.

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