Mrs. Harris (2005) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably R for language and sexuality
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Sevigny, Frances Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., Frank Whaley, Michael Gross, Philip Baker Hall, Mary McDonnell, Brett Butler (cameo), Ellen Burstyn (cameo), Larry Drake (cameo)
Director: Phyllis Nagy
Screenplay: Phyllis Nagy
Review published July 11, 2006
Based on a true story, Mrs. Harris tells of the high-profile murder of Scarsdale Diet guru Herman Tarnower (Kingsley, A Sound of Thunder) at the hands of his former wife-to-be, Jean Harris (Bening, American Beauty). From the events of the evening, at least as perceived by Jean, we flashback to earlier events in their relationship, from meeting to proposal, followed by the aftermath of Jean hanging on while Herman takes a new lover in his secretary, Lynne (Sevigny, Broken Flowers). When things came to a head in terms of tension between the two former lovers, Jean traveled to visit Herman with a handgun to, according to her testimony, kill herself in Herman's presence, but accidentally shot him several times during the argument and altercation. The well-publicized trial became national news across the nation in 1980, making Mrs. Harris the cover story of several prominent magazines, and the subject of many household conversations.
This isn't the first time that this story has been made into a feature-length film, with the first instance coming near the height of the murder case's popularity in the 1981 made-for-TV movie, The People vs. Jean Harris, starring Ellen Burstyn (who makes a cameo appearance in this 2005 film). Since the case was highly-publicized, and the subject of a couple of best-selling books in the early 1980s, writer-director Phyllis Nagy's revisiting of the events plays fast and loose with the tone and tempo of the story. In fact, the events play out much like a quirky black comedy, with noir overtones, depicting the real-life characters as humorously eccentric figures stuck in superficially tragic situations.
Despite two very good actors in lead roles and a respectable supporting cast, Mrs. Harris fails to properly engage the viewer either as a comedy or drama. Although Nagy takes a decidedly irreverent approach to the material, there just isn't anything particularly funny or remarkable about the love affair of Harris and Tarnower, nor in the events that transpire in the aftermath of the murder. The campy opening credits montage depicts murderous women in film, as if Harris were continuing a long-honored tradition of lovers who were wronged taking action against former lovers when they try to get out of the relationship. From then on, it's romanticized musical standards, weird camera angles, tongue-in-cheek character portrayals, and unconventional narrative techniques the rest of the way.
Perhaps if the film played out more as a straight drama with a comical eccentric at its core, a la Reversal of Fortune, this material might have been better served. As it stands the constant need to be offbeat distances us from the characters and events, to the point where we can never really get into the story, not really finding the proper foothold to care about the case against Mrs. Harris one way or another, or to feel the profundity the murder so desperately needs to properly keep us on the edge.
For a film that tries so hard to make this story entertaining, without identity with any of the central characters, Mrs. Harris is a failure both as a character study and as a docudrama. It's not easy to make acclaimed thespians like Kingsley and Bening look like terrible actors, but Nagy succeeds by shooting them in strange, off-putting ways and giving them difficult, awkward conversations to banter with. The film isn't a total fiasco, but it sure plays mighty close to the precipice throughout.
©2006 Vince Leo