The most remarkable thing about Lady of the Manor, a new supernatural comedy from first-time co-directors and co-writers Justin Long and Christian Long, is how unremarkable it is. The characters are paper-thin, the story is predictable, and many of the jokes fall flat. But in its final scenes, the movie manages a shred of course correction—and those who bother to stick around after shrugging through acts one and two will eventually get to see that it has some actual heart.
That’s if they stick around, mind you. An immediate roadblock is that protagonist Hannah is unlikable right off the bat, even though she’s played by Melanie Lynskey (who’s usually very likable). Hannah is the human equivalent of the junk food she sits around eating all day while she watches true crime shows and makes the occasional weed delivery on her bicycle. For most of the movie, we don’t see any side of her personality other than “unrepentant trainwreck,” and we don’t get any sense of how she (if she’s the same age as Lynskey, she’s in her mid-40s) came to be that way; instead, she’s just this sort of whirlwind of bad decisions and irresponsibility without any context whatsoever. One guesses this is meant to be adorable, screwball, and zany, but instead comes across as self-centered, repetitive, and frustrating.
After she’s dumped by her boyfriend—the last straw is when Hannah is mistakenly arrested for soliciting a minor, which terribly lets Lady of the Manor dip into the well of “tee-hee, she’s a sex offender!” jokes on more than one occasion—she fails upward into a gig as a tour guide at Wadsworth Manor. It’s one of Savannah, Georgia’s most stately historic homes, and she gets to live rent-free as part of the job. Her qualifications for this gig? The owner’s son—a preppy, philandering douchebag played with over-the-top gusto by Ryan Phillipe—thinks she’ll probably sleep with him.
And she probably would, except for the fact that Wadsworth Manor is haunted by a ghost that only Hannah can see: Lady Wadsworth (Halloween’s Judy Greer), whose death back in 1875—a fall down the home’s long staircase, with Philippe playing her probably murderous husband—is shown in Lady of the Manor’s prologue. Since Lady Wadsworth is a proper Southern belle, she’s horrified by Hannah’s uncouth approach to life and sets about trying to teach her how to act more refined. As you can imagine, there’s more work to be done here than a single makeover montage can handle; Hannah’s habits are deeply ingrained beneath a zero-fucks-given attitude, combined with a lack of brainpower (she wonders, aloud, if a 19th-century person named Zelda was named after The Legend of Zelda) that even the most persistent weed-smoking habit cannot have caused alone. And yet, because this is a movie and not real life, a nerdy history professor named Max (Justin Long) attends one of her factually incorrect tours, and takes a liking to her.
Also inexplicably in Hannah’s corner: the very patient Nia (The Walking Dead’s Tamara Austin), whose (Black) family has worked at the (white-owned) Wadsworth Manor for generations. Lady of the Manor shoves a little bit of tut-tutting about why tolerance is so important into one of its last scenes, but it doesn’t have the depth or even inclination to dig into anything involving race much more than that, despite the fact that its setting alone would seem to require it. But if Nia isn’t given anything to do besides stand around and react to Hannah’s hijinks, well... honestly, nobody else is either. That includes Luis Guzman, who has a glorified cameo as a bartender Hannah’s fond of whining her troubles to before skipping out on her bar tab.
However, all is not lost with Lady of the Manor. The scenes between Hannah and Lady Wadsworth are by far the best part of the movie, and things get downright enjoyable when the two start to form a real friendship. There’s a silly but sweet scene where Hannah gets the uptight Lady W. to loosen up a little by making ridiculous faces at her, which sounds childish on paper but actually feels like a genuine bonding moment. Once Lady of the Manor introduces a historical mystery into its plot—that staircase plunge in the prologue was obviously going to boomerang back around—the movie gets a shot of energy that makes Hannah’s long-overdue transformation into an actual adult feel believable.
Unfortunately, the process of Hannah starting to get her shit together comes with only about 20-30 minutes left in the movie, which may be too long for anyone who can’t stand the un-evolved version of the character. On the plus side, Greer elevates every scene she’s in, even the ones that involve fart jokes. And it must be said, most regrettably, that Lady of the Manor is very, very fond of those.
Lady of the Manor arrives in theaters, on-demand, and digital on September 17; it’s on Blu-ray and DVD on September 21.
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