Comedy is one of the most subjective forms of art. What one viewer finds to be right up their alley might completely turn another viewer off. When a film plays around with a blend of comedy subgenres, it is even more difficult to maintain an effective through-line of humor. Despite its good intentions and relatively lighthearted disposition, Lady of the Manor, co-directed by brothers Justin and Christian Long, falls prey to a multitude of clichés and unfunny punchlines.
This film has elements of the buddy-comedy, the fish-out-of-water comedy, and a supernatural undercurrent to boot. The fish-out-of-water in question is Hannah (Melanie Lynskey), a woman who is described in the official synopsis as a “stoner-slacker,” which is a fairly accurate summary of her character on a macro level. Most of her time throughout the day is spent sitting on the couch, drinking, smoking, and watching true crime documentaries. As it tends to go in these types of stories, Hannah stumbles into a situation that is far out of her depth. She finds a job role-playing as the late Lady Wadsworth on tours of the historic Wadsworth Manor in Savannah, Georgia. This is also where the paranormal aspects of the film come into play, as the ghostly yet benevolent apparition of Lady Wadsworth herself (Judy Greer) suddenly appears to Hannah. Lady Wadsworth seeks to show Hannah the ropes of how to be truly “ladylike,” at least in the 19th century Southern housewife kind of way. (There is a shroud of mystery around the circumstances of Lady Wadsworth’s death. She did in fact die in that very house, which explains her spirit’s presence in this case). On the other hand, Hannah reacts to Lady Wadsworth’s criticisms of her personality by making efforts to explain the cultural progression of women in the past 200 years or so. A lot has changed in the world since Lady Wadsworth died.
Lady of the Manor is indeed a very female-centric story as it aims to be a relatable depiction of the evolution of the standards and gender stereotypes applied to women over the generations. These are very significant topics to explore, and narratives with these motifs are an essential component of our landscape in art. Unfortunately, the manner of the storytelling in this film is particularly juvenile and unsophisticated. Even though it looks like this was a deliberate decision from the filmmakers, it never gains any traction as the story unfolds. Full disclosure, I am indeed a male reviewing this film, and female viewers may have a vastly different experience in their reception of Lady of the Manor. Still, my issues here go far beyond my inability to directly relate to the characterizations of women. The conglomeration of various comedic styles ultimately feels like humor that could have been derived from discussions in a middle school cafeteria. Again, subjectivity will play a huge role in each audience member’s reaction here, but simply put, I found very little in this film to be funny. Even the conversational dialogue amongst the characters is written to be unnecessarily explicit, as if there was a quota for F-bombs that had to be met, even if they had to go well out of their way to write them into the script. This film could have easily been a PG-13 comedy to be enjoyed by families, but the content stretches too far into R-rated territory for me to comfortably recommend as a family movie night feature presentation.
Thankfully, the leading duo of Melanie Lynskey and Judy Greer have solid on-screen chemistry. They both looked to be having fun acting together, and the arcs of their respective characters are complementary to each other and supplementary to the thematic storytelling in general. Their performances are the glue that (somewhat) hold the pieces of Lady of the Manor in place, although a lot of other problems in the film are working against them. The production and costume design are also highlights. The environment of the eponymous manor is a fascinating backdrop in terms of visual elements and commentary on the generational divide between Hannah and Lady Wadsworth. Additionally, there are a handful of familiar faces, including Luis Guzmàn, that pop up in the supporting cast. While the role of Guzmán’s bartender character is little more than a glorified cameo, it is always a delight to see a talent of his status grace the screen in anything you happen to be watching.
In a sense, these positive aspects of the film made the viewing experience even more frustrating. There is a lot of talent in front of the camera, and the technical direction from Justin and Christian Long is fairly competent. The glimpses of potential are there, and if you are able to tune out all the annoyances, then you may even find yourself enjoying portions of the film Yet, what does that say about the overall product? If it is meant to be a comedy first and foremost, but the comedy itself is the weakest link, then something is fundamentally wrong with the film. I take no pleasure in saying that, but that is essentially where Lady of the Manor lands.
In select theaters, on VOD, and Apple TV September 17th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD September 21st, 2021.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.