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HBO presents
Hysterical Blindness (2002)

"What's wrong with me? I really wanna know."
- Debby (Uma Thurman)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: August 28, 2003

Stars: Uma Thurman, Gena Rowlands, Juliette Lewis
Other Stars: Justin Chambers, Ben Gazzara
Director: Mira Nair

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for adult content, language
Run Time: 01h:38m:34s
Release Date: April 15, 2003
UPC: 026359189920
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B-A-B C

DVD Review

What Hysterical Blindness lacks in compelling plotting, it makes up for with great direction, sharp dialogue, and a stellar cast. It's an interesting slice-of-life character piece, but not much happens, and what does isn't deep, or complex, or worthy of much analysis. Instead, we spy on three women as they go about their lives in a small town in the mid-1980s; we share their sadness and their desperation, and we leave them, not understanding exactly the significance of their stories, but caring about them deeply as characters.

Debby (Uma Thurman) and Beth (Juliette Lewis) are instantly recognizable, the kind of girls who finished high school but never bothered to leave home or move on. They're stuck in dead end jobs, their only means of amusement the local bar (which they visit every night, high hair sprayed into submission, clad in garish spandex). Debby is particularly unbalanced—she is so sad and stressed by work and romance, she suffers bouts of anxiety-induced blindness. She gloms on to guys at the bar, mistaking their casual politeness for something more, unaware of the waves of neediness she exudes. Beth, meanwhile, distractedly cares for her daughter, not quite mature enough to handle her responsibility, and Debby's mother Virginia (Gena Rowlands) shyly starts a relationship with a retired man (Ben Gazzara) who always sits in her section at the diner where she waits tables.

The script, written by Laura Cahill and based on her play, delights in the small details—the nightly routine at the bar where the two friends drink, the social hierarchy in the break room where Debby works—but loses the larger details. We watch Debby and Virginia moving through their respective romances, see them experience pain and small pleasures, and after an hour and a half, I feel like I've gotten to know them intimately, but I'm not sure why—there's little to analyze, other than the obvious symbolic nature of Debby's fits of sightlessness. This is certainly apparent at the end, when Cahill forces an emotional climax and resolution, rushing her characters towards a happy ending without allowing then to wallow properly in their depression. It's very disconcerting, and a little false.

Mira Nair is the perfect director for the project. Her work has a compassion and warmth that allows for immediate identity and empathy (see Salaam Bombay! or Monsoon Wedding). Her loose, handheld style here is entirely effective—it feels like we're watching these people from the corner of the room, darting here and there to get a better look.

Nair is also obviously a whiz with actors, as the three leads all deliver outstanding, wrenching performances. Juliette Lewis is a little broad, but that's ok; her character is the comic relief, after all, and her chemistry with Thurman is genuine. Uma Thurman is, literally, so good, it's painful. She strips away all of her usual tics, her measured, aloof mannerisms, and delivers an emotionally naked performance that's never less than devastating—she cuts her heart open and lets Debby's misery and anguish bleed all over the screen. Rowland is softer, more controlled, but no less heartfelt—she has a scene in which she has to react to some very bad news over the phone, and just by watching her face, you understand what she's hearing as clearly as if you could hear the other end of the call.

Hysterical Blindness might work better as a play. On film, even with Nair's assured eye, it feels stage-y and stifled. But watch it for the performances, passionate and alive.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Though it originally aired on television, Hysterical Blindness comes to DVD with a crystal clear anamorphic widescreen transfer. Colors are crisp and natural, though a bit muted, in keeping with the film's tone. Black level is excellent, as is shadow delineation. Fine detail is very good throughout. The picture ably preserves Nair's stylistic quirks as well—any scenes that look fuzzy, soft, or "blown out" color-wise are most likely supposed to look that way.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in a somewhat subdued 5.1 mix that fits the film quite well. The track features mostly dialogue, which always sounds very natural and clean, and speech is well balanced with the score and the occasional pop tunes on the soundtrack. There isn't much opportunity for stereo separation or panning across the front mains, but there are a few instances. The surrounds punch up the songs a bit, and contribute atmosphere during the bar scenes.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
i Feature/Episode commentaries by director Mira Nair
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Text Interviews
  2. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: Mira Nair has provided literate commentary tracks for the majority of her films, and Hysterical Blindness is blessed with another. She concentrates on the story, explaining how her visuals and her direction to the actors developed out of her understanding of the screenplay. There are some pauses here and there, but this is still an intelligent, informative listen.

Text extras include lengthy bios for the cast and crew, and text interviews with Thurman, Lewis, Nair, and screenwriter Laura Cahill. A photo gallery offers eight promotional stills.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Hysterical Blindness is a small, personable film; a compelling character-driven drama with a trio of poignant performances that enrich the somewhat meandering script. HBO's DVD is very nice indeed, well worth a purchase or rental.


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