One of those movies one can only lament as a lost cause is 1988’s “High Spirits,” which had a great cast and a promising fantasy-comedy conceit that seemed perfect for director Neil Jordan — who’s said ever since that the much-disliked end result was a result of extreme creative interference. The new “Lady of the Manor” is billed as “A High-Spirited Comedy,” and one suspects its very similar premise was at least a tad influenced by the prior film.
Unfortunately, this feature directing debut for actor Justin Long and brother Christian falls equally flat, with no face-saving indication that it isn’t exactly the movie they set out to make. Its own expectations-raising yet poorly utilized cast will ensure some visibility for the Lionsgate release, which goes out to limited theaters, VOD and digital Sept. 17. But few will be cheered by this pale ghost of a comedy.
As in “High Spirits,” the attempted hijinks revolve around an ancestral home turned tourist attraction whose current minders are beset by the boisterous spirits of long-ago inhabitants. An 1875 prologue shows us the discordant marriage of Lady (Judy Greer) and Lord Wadsworth (Ryan Phillippe), introduced quarreling over the “vexing matter” of just who rules the roost in her inherited Savannah manse. That question is settled once the wife takes a fatal, none-too-accidental fall down the stairs.
Nearly 150 years later, Wadsworth Manor is a historical site open to the public. But as current owner Graydon Wadsworth (Patrick Duffy) is about to commence a mayoral campaign, he turns over the building’s management to his layabout son Tanner (Phillippe again). Threatened with a terminated allowance, this inebriate scion of Southern aristocracy reluctantly acquiesces, his first action as boss being to fire the current tour guide for refusing his blunt advances. Enjoying liquid refreshments in a local bar that evening, he meets Hannah (Melanie Lynskey), who seems the ideal replacement by his undiscriminating standards. Plus, she’s just lost her job (as a pot courier), boyfriend (Alex Klein) and home (he threw her out after bailing her out of jail).
Thus there is a new Lady Wadsworth to don the hoop skirts and show visitors around her carefully preserved abode. But the original Lady W. takes exception to this sloppy stoner chick’s mangling of her familial history (not to mention the English language), manifesting so that only Hannah can sense her presence, or displeasure. Also unamused is local history professor Max (Justin Long), though he’s willing to cut Hannah some slack as she’s just starting out, and claims willingness to learn her role properly.
Thus she gains two acting coaches, one long-dead but still very persnickety. Additional complications arise in the form of nice guy Max’s somewhat inexplicable romantic attentions, a problem since she’s already shagging Tanner, who’s neglected to mention he’s married. There’s also the discovery that these present-day Wadsworths may not even be the legal property owners, their ancestors having swindled it from rightful heirs (Tamara Austin, Wallace Claude Jean).
The Long siblings made their screenwriting debut in 2013 with “A Case of You,” an ensemble romantic comedy that erred on the side of blandness. This time, they go in the opposite direction, aiming for cheerfully rude yoks for which they have no flair whatsoever. It’s a pity, because all these actors have proven themselves more than capable of getting laughs, albeit with better material than they’re afforded here.
The usually admirable Lynskey is miscast in the kind of flailing-party-girl role that is Anna Faris’ specialty; Greer gets stuck playing a very one-note, old-school notion of “snooty.” You know the barrel is being scraped when performers of this caliber are asked to crack each other (and, theoretically, us) up by simply “making funny faces.” Long and Philippe’s comic chops are likewise largely wasted, while Luis Guzman must have owed somebody a favor, his role as a barkeep here is such a nonstarter.
As with “A Case of You” (which was directed by Kat Coiro), “Lady” could be worse, but it’s unfunny and pedestrian enough to make you wonder why so many talented people apparently didn’t realize they were lowering their game. The modestly scaled production is adequate in tech and design terms, though lack of inspiration is so pervasive, even beautiful Savannah doesn’t cast much atmospheric spell here.