Mrs. Harris

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/31/06 16:07:26

"Reversal of Fortune Lite."
3 stars (Just Average)

It was the Trial of the Century, at least for a while. It’s the case of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor, who was killed on March 10, 1980, by a jilted lover, the esteemed socialite Jean Harris. As Trials of the Century go, this one’s got it all: drugs, money, sex, gunplay, suicide attempts, and marriage proposals, all among the upper elite.

Writer/director Phyllis Nagy now captures all of this for the made-for-HBO film “Mrs. Harris,” an unfocused but frequently involving retelling, through the title character’s eyes, of her fourteen-year relationship with Dr. Herman “Hi” Tarnower. Annette Bening plays Jean; Ben Kingsley (perhaps apologizing for “Bloodrayne,” “A Sound of Thunder,” etc., etc.) plays Hi. Both performances are excellent, if only for the fact that they succeed in capturing all of Nagy’s wild mood changes within the script.

You see, instead of a straightforward account of the murder and all that led to it, Nagy opts for a heavy dose of social satire, but of varying degrees throughout. Some scenes play fairly straight, others play with just a pinch of heightened reality, and others go for broad, exaggerated comedy. (Most notable of the latter is a sequence in which Hi, emerging from the country club shower, seems to float on air as all others turn, with choreographed precision, to marvel at his large, ahem, assets.) The idea, it seems, is to present the story through Jean’s eyes, eyes that are often clouded through the haze of love, or at least an unhealthy combination of prescription drugs to which she quickly became addicted, thanks to Hi’s meddling.

This is most apparent thanks to an intriguing framing device that opens the film with Jean’s account of the night of Hi’s death and ends the film with a version probably closer to reality (or, at least, the reality as presented by the prosecution). The dialogue in both scenes remains identical, but the action is so very different. This clouding of the truth is the point of “Mrs. Harris,” a film which reminds us that the real Jean Harris still maintains her innocence to this day.

While the film is more concerned with the problematic relationship between Hi and Jean - their on-again, off-again romance constantly bruised by his incessant womanizing and her drug-heightened dependency on him - the film works best when dealing in side matters, such as the aforementioned social satire. Kingsley’s Hi is the most unlikable of men, yet he has found success through money. Dinner parties in this film come with an underlying sense of parody, ribbing the rich for behaving above the rest of us. There’s a snooty quality about Jean and Hi; even during a marriage proposal, she can’t help correcting him on his grammar. His later fame as the creator of a popular fad diet, when compared to his selfish, unpleasant behavior (both in and out of the bedroom), hits us: why does this jerk get to be rich and famous?

So when the movie works, it works quite well. But then we get moments that go for all-out comedy (such as documentary-style interviews with friends and family, featuring surprise cameos and broad caricature that aim for big laughs) placed right next to moments that go for all-out tragedy (Joan’s downward spiral, as played by Bening, is tender and sad). The mishmash of tones never settles as well as it could have with a more focused screenplay.

Still, with a big name cast on top of their game and a steady stream of juicy real-life drama from which to draw, “Mrs. Harris” comes out on top quite well. It’s worth seeing mainly for the performances and the biting satire. The film is fascinating enough to keep up watching through the iffier moments, allowing the better scenes to shine quite brightly. It might not be up to the level of, say, “Reversal of Fortune,” but it’s also far above your typical movie-of-the-week network filler.

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