All work and no play makes Shirley a crazy girl.
When you see the name “Shirley” as the movie’s title, don’t expect it to be about Shirley Temple, Shirley Jones, or Shirley Knight or a documentary on “Airplane” (“Don’t Call Me Shirley”). Expect it to be about Shirley Jackson, the horror and mystery novelist, and I guarantee you it’s an original piece of entertainment.
When you see Shirley’s Bennington College professor husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) inviting a young expecting couple-Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young)-into their home during a semester, much to Shirley’s (Elisabeth Moss) dismay, don’t expect it to be another “mother!” nightmare. Expect it to chill you with an artistic form of horror. You gotta love these artisan films for living up to the giants.
And when you see Shirley in her state of decay, and struggling to figure out the character Paula (Young) in her next book, don’t expect her to use an ax and write “All Work and No Play Makes Shirley a Dull Girl” on the walls. Expect her to have a connection with Rose, while their husbands go to work at school, and expect them to lose their sanities.
So far, this year alone, Moss has contributed profound performances in two horror entries: “The Invisible Man,” which had her fighting for her freedom from abuse and evil in a #MeToo-inspired remake, and now, “Shirley,” which has her dropping eggs on the floor, refusing to get out of bed, fooling around withy mushrooms, pouring red wine on a couch, and losing her mind. She’s on a roll.
I’ve never heard of Young, but I do know she has been in a few movies like “Assassination Nation” and “The Daughter.” Experiencing her for the first time, I see something special inside this young Australian actress. As far as I’m concerned, it’s usually the young actors who try to keep the older ones in check. In this case, we see her admiring Shirley Jackson’s work and seeing their own colors.
We don’t get much out of Lerman’s character, other than him being cut off from his wealthy family for eloping with Rose and getting a job at the college, but we do see his pay-off later in the film. And Stuhlbarg continues to entertain us with his dialogue, tone, attitude, and dignity. It’s always riveting to see him struggle with Shirley’s behavior, while admiring the poetry of life.
The movie was directed by Josephine Decker. Would it derivative if I said she was channelling Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick? Because I’ve mentioned filmmakers who have done so like Robert Eggers for “The Lighthouse” or Cory Finley for “Thoroughbreds” or Jordan Peele for “Us” or Aneesh Chaganty for “Searching.” Probably not, because directors we’ve either heard of or are learning about take those chances and accomplish fresh, dangerous films. In fairness, they could never replace them, but they are inspired by them, and they’re open-minded.
Let’s not forget to mention that the Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay is based off of Susan Scarff Merrell; and both Moss and Martin Scorsese are among the producers of this. But really, double praise goes out to Moss for delivering one of her best, distinctive performances as Shirley Jackson. Her acting, make-up, vulnerabilities, ambitions, and passion convinces us she really is the acclaimed novelist.
Available on Amazon Prime