‘Wild Nights with Emily’ is a step above ‘Drunk History’

Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler in Wild Nights with Emily (2018)

Wild Nights with Emily (2019)

Directed by Madeleine Olnek

One of the many forms Emily Dickinson enjoyed was the riddle poem—one of them even makes its way into the new historical comedy “Wild Nights with Emily.” It’s only fitting, then, that Dickinson’s life has remained for so long a riddle, parsed by scholars for centuries. New technology that detects pencil marks after they have been erased recently uncovered evidence that suggested Emily had a romantic love for her sister-in-law, Susan (which has been theorized about for decades). This provided the basis for writer-director Madeleine Olnek’s take on Emily’s story, wherein Olnek shuts down the idea that Dickinson was a boring and loveless recluse.

Molly Shannon in Wild Nights with Emily (2018)

I was skeptical when I heard that Molly Shannon would be playing Dickinson (though, of course, it was also the only reason I was curious enough to see this movie). Sure, the “Superstar” star has since moved on from “SNL” to touching indie dramedies like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and totally rebranded herself. Sure, she even looks the part of Emily Dickinson if you squint. But I was right to worry. “Wild Nights with Emily” is the closest thing we’ve seen to a “Drunk History” movie. The narration style struggles to clearly explain the introduction, the camera can be seen shaking, and the image sometimes blurs when a subject moves closer to or farther from the camera. I could count all the laughs on one hand (with fingers left over). Comedic readings of Dickinson’s letters and poems fall flat, as do the dramatic readings of them. If the lead actresses seem unrehearsed or dispassionate, the men (while thankfully rarely allowed to speak) are downright embarrassing. While I appreciate the portrayal of Dickinson not as a boring hermit but as a closeted lesbian struggling to find readers for her very personal works, “Wild Nights with Emily” is anything but wild—it’s a stale, flat comedy that was clearly made for a very small audience.


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