Friday, May 18, 2012

What’s Still Wrong with Virginia

Screenwriter turned director Dustin Lance Black deserves some credit.  It is difficult to admit your indie labor of love just isn’t happening, but Black forthrightly faced up to the uniformly negative reception for What’s Wrong with Virginia at Toronto and headed back to the editing bay.  Unfortunately, the problems are just too deeply rooted in the film now simply titled Virginia (trailer here), which nevertheless belatedly opens in New York today.

Emmett’s mother Virginia is sleeping with Sheriff Tipton, the holier than thou Mormon state senate candidate in a judgmental southern town.  At least, she was until she became too great a political liability.  Emmett deeply resents Tipton for tarnishing his mother’s reputation with their brazen carrying-on.  Tipton wants no part of Emmett either and he expressly forbids the sullen youth from seeing his daughter Jessie.  After all, he has been paying calls on Virginia for quite some time, if you follow.  Emmett fully understands this fact, but he doesn’t care.  As he pursues Jessie, his mother slowly begins to breakdown mentally.  She convinces herself she is pregnant (causing no end of embarrassment for Tipton) and contemplates some rash criminal acts.  Still, she is cool enough to give Emmett’s courtship of Jessie her blessings.

Evidently, in the previous cut much of this was presented as farcical comedy.  Black certainly succeeded in draining all the ostensive humor out of the film, which sounds like it is just as well.  While the dreary tone might be more consistent, huge problems remain.  The gauzy, nostalgic cinematography (and to a certain extent the costumes) give the film a 1950’s-early 1960’s vibe, but the cars and set trappings are clearly of a later vintage.  It is also hard to figure out where this could all take place.  From what the audience is told, this is a small town in the Deep South, politically and socially dominated by Mormons, within easy driving distance of Atlantic City.  Okay, find that on the map for us.

This is not just a matter of splitting pedantic hairs.  Penned by Black, the ex-Mormon Big Love scribe, Virginia’s screenplay is far too concerned with schooling people the director disagrees with, such as his former co-religionists, southerners, and Republicans (presumably), than telling a coherent story.  Nor is there much character development here, but rather a reliance on stereotypes.  Tipton is a conservative Mormon, therefore he is a hypocrite.  Virginia is a “free spirit,” so she must be saintly. 

Indeed, Tipton’s kinky laundry is predictably and repeatedly aired in public, lest we miss the point.  What can be said of a narrative that hinges on the realization Sheriff Tipton allowed a reality TV show to film him walking from a crime scene to the town’s fallen woman next door for a bit of action on the side?  The purpose of this review is hardly to give cheaters tips to prevent detection, but duh.

Jennifer Connelly is quite compelling as Virginia, but she portrays the title character as such a lost little girl in a state of perpetually arrested development, it adds layer of creepiness to the lurid sexual content.  Conversely, Ed Harris is nothing more than a caricature as Tipton.

It is really heavy to think this is the new and improved Virginia.  Those poor misfortunate souls in Toronto must have taken quite a hit for the team.  It is still pretty bad.  Not recommended for anyone, Virginia opens today (5/18) in New York at the AMC Empire.