Strong showings by Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley are the main attractions in “Mrs. Harris.” Competent rather than inspired retelling of sensational 1980 case, in which socialite Jean Harris killed “Scarsdale Diet” guru Dr. Herman Tarnower, has a juicy story and castful of familiar faces all the way down to cameo roles. But playwright Phyllis Nagy’s film directorial bow is an uneven affair, lacking the panache that elevated ripped-from-headlines pics like “Reversal of Fortune” above telepic level — perhaps a moot point, since feature is expected to bow on HBO next spring.
Harris (Bening) was a divorcee raising two sons when friends introduced her to charismatic cardiologist Tarnower (Kingsley) in 1966. A (frequently) self-proclaimed Brooklyn Jew who’d struck it rich with a patient list out of the Social Register, bachelor Tarnower lived in baronial splendor in New York’s Westchester County, complete with a trophy room of his exotic safari kills. If it had included the heads of his incessant carnal conquests, an additional wing would’ve been required –though brusque and not particularly lovely to look at, the doc was a formidable Casanova.
Witty and attractive, Harris was accomplished as a single mother and career woman (she became headmistress of an exclusive girls’ boarding school). Yet underneath lay a cripplingly low self-esteem that made her choice of companion disastrous.
Tarnower surprised her with a gaudy, expensive engagement ring early in their relationship. Yet after months ensued without any wedding date, he simply admitted he’d changed his mind. He hit on other women in her presence, made scant effort to conceal other dalliances, and kept additional long-running mistresses.
He also arguably made things worse by writing prescriptions for more addictive medications than Jean’s legitimate complaints (such as chronic back pain) could justify.
By the end — when duo had been involved nearly 14 years — he seemed to be shifting his primary interest over to a more pliant, much younger secretary (Chloe Sevigny as Lynne Tryforos), shutting out the increasingly hysterical Harris.
Pic begins with latter’s witness-stand version of the fatal evening when she’d driven four hours to confront a dismissive Tarnower, claiming she’d meant to say goodbye before killing herself. In the ensuing struggle her handgun kept accidentally unloading in his body, while stubbornly misfiring each time she aimed at her own temple, according to her testimony.
Later the night is replayed with the same dialogue, but considerably more homicidal intent. It was this last version the jury believed, and Harris was sent to prison for second-degree murder at age 56. (She was released 12 years later.)
These mirroring sequences work well, but between them “Mrs. Harris” — which is superficially structured by trial-procedure intertitles from “Opening Statements” to “Closing Arguments” — doesn’t seem sure just what approach to settle on: Elements of mystery, social satire (Nagy does have some bright lines up her sleeve), psychological horror story, black comedy, and straightforward tragic love story all jostle without complementing each other or achieving a successful kaleidoscope effect.
The latter may be Nagy’s goal, but she’s not yet an accomplished enough filmmaker to pull it off. Despite particularly sharp assists from her designers in nailing the nouveau riche couture and decor of the eras covered, the movie’s own style alternates between pedestrian and overreaching.
Occasional segs, like the opening-credits compilation of avenging-female clips (Swanson shooting Holden in “Sunset Boulevard,” etc.) or a quasi-production number in which locker room fellows gaze awestruck at Tarnower’s extra-large member, go for a campiness that doesn’t mesh with anything else here. Nevertheless, tale and execution are both colorful enough to hold attention.
Bening (looking at times like 1970s Ellen Burstyn, who played Harris in a 1981 telepic — and who gets third billing for an eyeblink cameo here) hits all the right individual notes of pluck, passion, and tether-snapping, even if the hectic script doesn’t let them form a coherent arc. Kingsley easily puts across the kind of masculine appeal that can exist in tandem with empathy-challenged callousness.
Telling a flashback-laden tale in breakneck fashion, with no time for detailing minor characters, Nagy instead lets a support cast’s recognition factor fill in the blanks — among them Frances Fisher, Mary McDonnell, Philip Baker Hall and Frank Whaley. Perhaps the best impression is made by Cloris Leachman, who (allowed to play something other than senility for a change) is very funny as Tarnower’s staunch sibling ally and Harris’ sneering nemesis.