Friday, June 12, 2020

Women in the Middle . . . of a Nervous Breakdown

You can’t think of two more dissimilar film projects than the 2018 indie comedy, Support the Girls , and the oblique new thriller, Shirley. They have, though, one thing in common: both feature mid-life women in positions of authority who are striving mightily to cope with the hand they were dealt.

Support the Girls is a big-hearted (and big-busted) romp set in a down-home sports bar that features nubile young waitresses in short shorts and skimpy pink T-shirts. (Think a localized version of Hooters.) The clientele is mostly blue-collar: they’re loud and raucous, but generally harmless, and everyone is constantly being reminded that this is a family place. Riding herd over the goings-on is general manager and mother hen Lisa (the highly appealing Regina Hall), who in the course of one highly-charged day faces every imaginable problem, from a cable-TV malfunction to a would-be burglar in the air duct to a ditsy employee who’s just violated company rules by getting a huge tattoo of basketball star Steph Curry on her midriff.

Though Lisa is quick to listen to everyone else’s problems, she’s got plenty of troubles of her own, including a depressed spouse who’s on the brink of moving out. She tries to organize an off-the-books carwash to assist a battered young woman who’s a member of her crew, but the good deed blows up in her face. And her redneck boss can be crude and downright nasty. It doesn’t help that she’s African-American. So she  feels rankled by such absurd policies as the rule that allows only one waitress of color on any shift. By the time she’s been fired (yet again) by her capricious superior, there seems nothing for it but to interview for a job with an upstart rival hot spot named Man Cave. What keeps her going, though, is the camaraderie she feels with the “girls” who have been under her wing.

Sbirley couldn’t be more different in its tone and its atmosphere. It’s basically a four-hander, set in the leafy college town of Bennington, Vermont circa 1950. Two couples living in the same large, rambling house form an unlikely quartet. Rose and Fred are newlyweds. She is newly pregnant; he has been hired by Bennington College as a young prof and assistant to a faculty superstar, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (played with panache and conviction by Michael Stuhlbarg). Stanley’s deeply neurotic wife and verbal sparring partner is Shirley Jackson, already the author of an unforgettably eerie story, “The Lottery.” She’s on the brink of writing her second novel and moving toward such major gothic fiction as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Shirley is played by the hugely versatile Elisabeth Moss, lightyears away from her naive but determined  Peggy Olson in Mad Men. Though the philandering Stanley has his pick of the campus coeds, the center of the ménage is Shirley, with her barbed witticisms, unexpected kindnesses, and tendency to dominate any gathering she’s in. There’s something of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf quality at work, with the older couple manipulating the younger one for their own emotional satisfaction. But Shirley is also—first and foremost—a writer, and her fascination with Rose takes on a life of its own as she weaves it into her current manuscript.

The real Jackson/Hyman marriage, as chronicled in Ruth Franklin’s prize-winning biography, contained four children who are definitely not in evidence here. But the perverse aspects of the actual marital relationship are used by the filmmakers to shed a dark light on this fascinating film.
Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss (she looks remarkably like the real Shirley Jackson)

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