Lady Of The Manor Review: Haunting Humor
Some comedies can win you over just by exuding the feeling that everyone involved in making them had an absolute blast along the way. It’s one of the reasons Judd Apatow was able to dominate the big-screen comedy world in the 2000s with a stock company of actors trading one-liners, why the Marx Brothers still work decades after their last film rolled out into theaters, and why some of the best comedies from Hollywood’s golden age are very often just about a handful of people talking in a series of rooms. If you build the right ensemble and turn them loose, audiences just feel the good vibes and gravitate your way.
There are a lot of good vibes in “Lady of the Manor,” the new comedy from writers and directors Justin and Christian Long, because this is a movie filled with people you probably like thanks to one past project or another. It’s a film packed with charm that can easily and happily coast on the sheer pleasantness of its cast, and that alone makes it worth watching. But the other charming thing about “Lady of the Manor” is that it never feels content to coast, no matter how likable or laid back its major players seem to be along the way. There’s also an ambition, however subtle, to this little supernatural comedy, and while it doesn’t connect on every swing it takes, that it keeps stepping up to the plate makes it all the more likable.
A different kind of haunted house
Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) is a slacker who spends her days on the couch marathoning true crime shows and occasionally ventures out to do her “job” of delivering drugs to people on behalf of a dealer. When that gig, coupled with a very wild misunderstanding, lands her in hot water, Melanie finds herself in need of a new job and a place to stay. She finds it thanks to Tanner (Ryan Phillippe), a disinterested rich guy who’s just been put in charge of his family’s stately Savannah mansion and its status as a historical tourist attraction featuring living history tours. To him, Hannah is the perfect person to take over the job of playing the former mistress of the house, Elizabeth Wadsworth, if only so he’ll no longer have to worry about picking someone to do it. Hannah, desperate for a bed (among other things), dives right in despite knowing nothing at all about the building’s history. It’s this lack of knowledge, and the seemingly flippant attitude she has toward learning anything about the manor at all, that draws the ire of two very important people: A local history professor (Justin Long) with a vested interest in the facts, and the ghost of Elizabeth Wadsworth herself (Judy Greer), who’s mortified that such a woman is playing her, and becomes determined to set things right in more ways than one.
There’s a lot going on here, and one of the most striking things about “Lady of the Manor” is just how well it balances all of it without ever feeling like it’s trying to pull off some major comic juggling act. It’s easy to peer through the layers of the story and see a version of this that’s simply a non-supernatural comedy of errors about a slacker trying to work a job as a tour guide and finding help (and perhaps love) through a handsome, slightly awkward professor. It’s also easy to see it working as just a “‘Pygmalion”-esque tale of manners, as Lady Wadsworth works from beyond the grave to sculpt her mortal pupil into something more fitting. Throw in a mystery subplot about the true nature of Elizabeth’s death, Phillippe’s own shenanigans as Tanner, and Hannah’s larger arc of trying to make something of herself and her life, and it all starts to feel like a bit much on paper, but the Long brothers make it work.
Which isn’t to say “Lady of the Manor” works perfectly through 100 percent of its runtime. There are moments when its reach exceeds its grasp, and when the pacing could use a little tightening amid the rather breezy tone of it all, but on a larger scale this is a case of two filmmakers knowing exactly the kind of film they wanted to make and just going for it. The granular details don’t always land perfectly, but there’s a sense that the Longs aren’t trying to juggle all of these elements as much as they’re just tossing them in the air and letting them float on a cloud of levity. That gives the movie an unexpected sense of grace that makes it pleasant even on the rare occasions when it stumbles.
Charm to spare
That grace extends to the cast, all seasoned performers that bring comedic gifts so polished that they make it look easy even when “Lady of the Manor” creeps into more awkward territory. Lynskey is unsurprisingly game for just about anything the filmmakers want to throw at Hannah, diving into a character who’s just sort of stumbling through life spinning plates, hoping she finally keeps one in the air without cracking it. Greer is, also unsurprisingly, just as game for the film’s blend of heart and humor, playing Lady Wadsworth with an exaggerated sense of propriety that feels over-the-top yet somehow relatable. Then there’s Phillippe, who seems to be having so much fun playing a rich jerk that you almost want an entire movie just about Tanner’s many screw-ups.
But the success of “Lady of the Manor” goes beyond individual performances. This is a true ensemble piece bolstered by a sense of chemistry that runs from the first frame all the way to the last. On a film of this size, there’s the sense, however vague, that everyone’s just kind of figuring it out as they go, and that can work in the film’s favor or to its detriment. In the case of “Lady of the Manor,” it’s absolutely the former, because you can see just how much warmth and joy is baked into the final product. It’s a movie very much in the “A Bunch of Friends Get Together and Put on a Show” subgenre of comedy, and that allows it to become more than the sum of its parts.
“Lady of the Manor” is in theaters and on demand September 17, and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray September 21.