It’s so upbeat and carries on so vigorously that you’ll want to like Hysteria. So you’ll pardon its occasional sloppiness and questionable focus, holding out for gratification. After all, if Tanya Wexler’s cinematic look at the invention of the vibrator promises anything, it’s a more-than-satisfying climax.
On that count, Hysteria doesn’t quite deliver. With how much attention Girls and 50 Shades of Grey have paid to the female orgasm, the climate has never been riper for an uproarious treatment of sexual liberation. Instead, Wexler offers a formulaic romantic comedy that’s entertaining enough, but hardly substantive.
Dedicated physician Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy, who inherits his bumbling charm from countryman Colin Firth) believes in germs and science, making him essentially unemployable in late-19th-century England. Unwilling to adopt primitive practices, Granville gets a lucky break from a posh doctor specializing in curing “hysteria.” It’s a catch-all term encompassing general women’s anxieties, for which Granville’s mentor has a proven cure: manually stimulated orgasms. If that weren’t the source of enough tittering humor, all that finger-wiggling gives Granville carpal tunnel, leading him to a familiar mechanical substitute for third base.
Such annoyingly winking attempts at ribaldry are sidelined by an all-too-obvious love affair between Granville and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s out-of-place feminist Charlotte. The daughter of Granville’s partner, she’s a social activist whose charged rants are irksomely anachronistic. While Gyllenhaal makes Charlotte a spunky foil to the prim Granville, her clumsy political diversions suddenly supplant the movie’s focus on a budding sexual revolution. O-faces and vibrators frustratingly vanish into the background, and what’s left is a dalliance that’s unsatisfyingly familiar.