By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“The Chaperone” is a rigged shell game. It lures you in with Louise Brooks, the charismatic silent-film legend best known for “Pandora’s Box,” and proceeds to tell you this tedious fictional tale about the woman who accompanied Brooks from Wichita to New York where the incipient Ultimate Jazz Baby found – what else? –fame and fortune.
At least the movie can claim truth in advertising. It is, after all, called “The Chaperone.”
Young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson, who’s pretty good but lacks the unique allure of the real Brooks) has been offered the chance to study dance in Manhattan with the prestigious Denishawn company. Barely 16, her family thinks she’s much too young to go there unaccompanied. A neighbor, Norma (Elizabeth McGovern, who also co-produced), volunteers to take her.
Louise, of course, is a handful – a madcap hoyden with an independent spirit. If Norma is worried about her charge’s virginity, well, don’t. She left that back in Wichita. In fact, New York suits her just fine. It’s a place where men always want to buy her things, be it ice cream or gin – “just for the pleasure of my company,” as she puts it.
However, the pleasure of Louise’s company isn’t what’s brought Norma east. While her charge is in dance class, she heads to the New York Home for Friendless Girls, i.e., the nun-run orphanage from which she was adopted. The Sisters are disinclined to help her, but luckily the place’s kind-hearted German handyman is.
“The Chaperone” truly is a bait-and-switch story. Even though Brooks is hardly a familiar name anymore, she does provide some marquee value (for a few movie-lovers, at least). But here, she could be just about anyone on a fling far from home. She’s basically decoration.
Meanwhile, Norma’s journey is a pain – joyless, boring and predictable. The prude who approves of Prohibition will, well – spoiler alert – loosen up. And find she’s much happier that way.
This is also one of those annoying movies that invests the time in which it’s set with a more forward-looking attitude than actually existed.
Filmmaker Michael Engler is trying to make some points about flappers and feminism (the picture is set in 1922, two years after women got the vote). But when Norma says she once thought of becoming a nurse and one of her adult sons pipes up, why not a doctor??, it doesn’t ring true. Worse, it grates.
This stuff ‘n’ nonsense comes to us courtesy of Julian Fellowes who has had the world at his feet ever since “Downton Abbey.” Maybe that’s what “The Chaperone” needs: a healthy dose of Maggie Smith.