Shirley Goodness and Mercy, PLEASE MERCY!

The Stream: Elisabeth Moss is up to her old tricks.

The Big Screen: Unexpected thrills may catch you off guard in this biopic.

The Final Bill: An attempt to drop thrills in this biopic sends the whole thing off the rails.

-Trip Fontaine
Director: Josephine Decker
Writers: Sarah Gubbins (screenplay), Susan Scarf Merrell (novel)
Stars: Elisabeth MossOdessa YoungMichael Stuhlbarg | See full cast & crew »
Runtime: 1 hour 41 minutes
Genre: BiographyDramaThriller 
Rating: R
Platform: Hulu

Here’s another weekend without a movie theater. There’s still new content on demand and with streaming services. We finally got around to the new film on Hulu, Shirley, starring Elisabeth Moss as renowned writer, Shirley Jackson. Is Shirley as thrilling as Ms. Jackson’s stories?

Biopics about writers can be difficult to make cinematic because the writing process is so internal. While Shirley is about the writer and the writing process, it is hardly a biopic in the normal sense. The film focuses on a young couple who move to the Vermont college town where Shirley and her husband Stanley, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, live.  The young husband, Fred, played by Logan Lerman, has a position as Stanley’s assistant, and the wife, Rose, played by Odette Young, plans to audit some courses at the school, but her plans change as Stanley needs someone to manage the home because Shirley cannot. The couple plans to stay with Stanley and Shirley temporarily until they find their own place. As Shirley’s eccentric madness fills the home as she begins to work on her new novel, thrills ensue and consume Rose.

Josephine Decker, who directed Shirley, does a good job of balancing themes. There is a focus on the relationships between the husbands and wives that deteriorate due to selfishness and mistrust. The film depicts how those relationship can affect mental health, which becomes more important as the film moves along. The connection between Shirley’s writing and her mental state permeate the movie and affect the characters in interesting ways. Sometimes it can get confusing, but I suppose that was the point. The film wants to feel like one of Shirley Jackson’s stories, and there is something thrilling about it – to a point.

Aside from some confusion due to directorial choices, my biggest problem with Shirley is Elisabeth Moss. Moss is a good actress, but like many actors, she has a go-to bag of tricks when she plays her characters. That deep, crazed stare she has. She’s got a tremble and a soft, calculated speaking voice. While I get that Shirley has mental issues and she’s prickly, Moss’s portrayal of her feels like a caricature. It is outsized and false. I wish she would have reined it in. Moss is particularly jarring when compared to Michael Stuhlbarg, who is very good but equally calculating as Stanley. The unfortunate part of this is that Moss’s portrayal took me out of the movie completely.

S2S: Official Rating Scale

Ultimately, if you like Shirley Jackson’s writing, it may be interesting to see this slice of life biopic/thriller. The director attempted to create a movie that feels like a story written by Shirley; and, even though, it has its thrilling moments, the movie can be confusing and off-putting. Unfortunately, Moss’s over-the-top acting pulls focus of the film and does a disservice to it overall.

1 Popped Kernel