A lighthearted comedy clumsily attempts to address race, to less than successful results.
Lady of the Manor is the very definition of a mixed bag. Judy Greer as a snooty, Southern Belle ghost? Just delightful! Justin Long and his brother inadvertently diving headlong into delicate racial issues in their directorial debut? Not so much!
Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) is a classic listless slacker. With no real ambitions, she’s a pajama-clad drug courier with a crappy boyfriend, and going nowhere. It’s not long before she loses her job, her relationship, and her home. Meanwhile, Tanner (Ryan Phillippe), the son of the wealthy Wadsworth clan and utter fuckup, is in need of a new tour guide for his family’s ancestral home. Hannah takes the gig, but soon realizes the home is haunted by its former mistress, Lady Wadsworth (Greer). It’s up to this ghostly presence to not just bring Hannah up to speed in her new gig, but to teach her how to have a little more respect for herself.
What immediately stands out is just how good Lynskey, Greer, and Phillippe are. Phillippe in particular is perfectly, disgustingly smarmy in a way that reminds you of his role in Cruel Intentions (but only if Sebastian were much, much dumber). Greer is clearly having a ball, flouncing about in her 19th-century garb and charming her way through every scene, even if her accent flits in and out. And Lynskey’s comedic timing is so sharp, she manages to sell a few gags I’m almost embarrassed to admit I laughed at, including at least three fart jokes. So what’s the problem here?
Unfortunately, it all hinges on a key part of the central premise. When it comes to the titular lady of the manor, you can see how much they wanted the comic appeal of that antiquated, Southern drawl. But why, oh why, in the year 2021 would Justin Long and his co-writer/director (and brother) Christian Long think they can just dive right into a story about the Reconstruction era of the Deep South without realizing that if you get into it, you really have to get into it?
By setting it in a Savannah mansion, just a couple miles from the largest slave auction in history, there is no way to avoid addressing race in this story. But it all just hovers around the edges for most of the running time, completely unaddressed, while the portrayals of the side characters speak volumes.
Because Black people appear as props in the same way they do in so many early 2000s rom coms, it feels even more egregious here given the setting. Not only is the only Black woman in the film Hannah’s confidant for no real reason (Hannah isn’t particularly kind to her and she’s initially terrible at her job), but she’s also the chief housemaid. The only Black man in the film serves as nothing but a piece of eye candy, with zero personality and nearly as many lines. This thin and sloppy relationship building would perhaps be more easily forgiven if it didn’t force the only Black actors into versions of the Mammy and Mandingo stereotypes.
Then when the film finally does decide to tackle the issue of race head-on [without spoiling], you see them trying to aim for some alleviation of the racial tension under the surface. All it does is paint a shiny, dishonest lie over history, one that only helps elevate the white slave-owner as a well-meaning, loving master whose wants were merely corrupted by others. It doesn’t just feel ham-fisted and embarrassing, it’s part of the same whitewashing of history that they’re actually trying to criticize. In that, it’s not that Lady of the Manor needs to rigidly abide by historical facts, it’s simply that they have to find some way to honor both our modern understanding of history and the emotional heart of the characters for which it supposedly has sympathy. But in trying to sidestep the issue while taking the most “funny” parts of rhe Reconstruction South, it just displays staggering ignorance, the kind that mainstream audiences are loath to accept from Hollywood these days.
It’s disappointing because so much of Lady of the Manor works when it otherwise shouldn’t, because this cast knows how to make even the most rote joke land. So if the Long brothers had the forethought or cultural awareness to know just how murky and dangerous the waters they were delving into really were, they could have found a way to make an innocuous and pleasant debut. Unfortunately, it’s all overshadowed and tainted by the history it plays with.
Lady of the Manor premieres in theaters and on demand September 17th.