“How can it be so difficult to adapt a story you’ve already written?” asks Ruth Condomine (Isla Fisher) to her writer husband Charles (Dan Stevens), and it’s a question that could be rejiggered slightly and posed to the filmmakers behind Blithe Spirit. The film is a new adaptation of an eighty-year-old Noel Coward play, but rather than focus on the classic tale’s highlights, the new supernatural comedy delivers an unfunny misfire with a game cast barely clinging to life.
Charles is a successful novelist struggling to write his first screenplay, an adaptation of his own work, and neither his wife nor his studio executive father-in-law can understand the delay. What they don’t know is that Charles is currently being haunted by his deceased wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann), who re-entered his life after a botched seance with a psychic charlatan named Madame Cecily Arcati (Judi Dench). Elvira’s far from pleased seeing Charles with a new wife and immediately sets about disrupting the man’s life both in and out of the bedroom, but she also works to reveal the writer’s big secret — he didn’t actually write any of his books. She did.
Blithe Spirit began life as a Coward play premiering in 1941 to great success, and numerous adaptations for the stage and screen (big and small) followed with David Lean’s 1945 film being the most well-known. This new incarnation from director Edward Hall and writers Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcroft keeps the basic story and period, but while it adds a new wrinkle to Charles it removes all of the fun. It’s unclear how it took three writers to add that single narrative turn *and* suck out the entertainment.
Part of the problem with this new dynamic is that we’re not really given an enjoyable protagonist. Charles is a plagiarist, and Elvira is a bit of a jerk turned murderer, which leaves only Ruth to appeal to viewers. That could be enough, but she’s presented as a borderline nagging wife despite her problems with Charles being wholly understandable. This ultimately leaves Madame Arcati as the only real source of amusement and a hint of heart as she’s a fraud delighted to discover her powers are real, and her concern quickly shifts to reuniting with her own deceased lover.
It’s true that you don’t really need to like characters in a comedy, but good luck succeeding with one that doesn’t deliver the laughs. The big “comedy” throughline here is watching Charles snipe at Elvira despite no one else being able to see or hear her — meaning people keep thinking he’s insulting them instead. Hilarity ensues! Blithe Spirit latches so hard onto this singular gag without ever stopping to wonder if it was funny the first time. It was not, but that doesn’t stop the film from repeating it again and again.
The biggest shame here, aside from it being an unfunny comedy, is that the cast members are highly talented actors who’ve shown delightfully comedic chops elsewhere. Fisher (Wedding Crashers) and Mann (Knocked Up) are never less than pitch-perfect in their previous roles, and Stevens pretty much steals every one of his Eurovision Song Contest scenes from his far more established co-stars there. Even Dench has mined numerous comedic beats with characters both in and out of comedies. All four are perfectly lively here, even as they’re playing things a bit too big at times (think 1988’s High Spirits which arguably riffs on some of Coward’s original dynamics), but their performances still can’t breathe life into the film’s otherwise flat presentation.
Blithe Spirit looks good enough with bright, colorful production design and cinematography, but as frantic as some sequences feel they’re still curiously lifeless. Shifting its setting to the golden years of Hollywood is paired with a desire to fit in with the fast-talking, endlessly witty comedies of the period like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, but it can’t even reach the level of Lean’s own Blithe Spirit. That wit is absent, and the banter occasionally leans a bit more mean-spirited which also serves to suck out the humor (and makes Ruth’s fate more upsetting than entertaining).
The lasting question becomes why remake Blithe Spirit at all? The best remakes improve and/or add their own voice into the mix in order to stand apart, but Hall and his three writers retain so much set dressing while only adding in a half-baked female empowerment angle. Rex Harrison’s Charles in the 1945 film is an exasperated writer stuck between two loves, one dead and one living (at least for a while), and the antics are tempered with a conflicted romance. Stevens’ turn at the character isn’t given that chance per this new spin, and that immediately leaves the film devoid of a romantic baseline. A romantic comedy with neither love nor laughs? That’s a blithe approach to your remake.