First Look Pictures // 1989 // 102 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // July 23rd, 2004
"If I could just win first prize, then I could leave this town in a blaze of glory."
Playwright Beth Henley, whose play Crimes of the Heart became a film in 1986, brings another of her Southern gothic comedies from stage to screen. Blessed with a stellar cast including Holly Hunter (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Mary Steenburgen (Casa de los Babys), Tim Robbins (Mystic River), and Alfre Woodard (Radio), Miss Firecracker, an adaptation of Henley's play The Miss Firecracker Contest, combines pathos, quirky comedy, and gothic excess.
Carnelle Scott (Hunter) was orphaned at age eight and taken in by her aunt in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Now in her twenties, she's trying to reinvent herself. Whereas she used to seek reassurance by sleeping around -- which earned her the nickname Miss Hot Tamale -- now she has set her sights on winning the Miss Firecracker beauty contest. It's a long shot, and no one knows it better than her poised cousin Elain (Steenburgen), who was crowned Miss Firecracker back in 1972 and is returning this year to give an address on "My Life as a Beauty." Elain is still treated like a celebrity by Yazoo City, and she is none too pleased when her brother Delmount (Robbins) arrives in town, fresh out of a mental institution and itching to cash in on the crumbling family mansion that belonged to Carnelle's aunt.
To everyone's astonishment, Carnelle is accepted as a contestant, and she embarks on a whirl of preparations. With the help of eager seamstress Popeye (Woodard), Carnelle plans her competition wardrobe. Meanwhile, the arrival of the carnival brings Carnelle's sometime boyfriend, Mac Sam (Scott Glenn, The Silence of the Lambs), who admires her gumption in entering the pageant. And Carnelle will need all the gumption she can summon in the face of Elain's cool condescension, the town's memories of Miss Hot Tamale, and competition from a big-haired blonde channeling Scarlett O'Hara. The cards are stacked against Carnelle, but she has something to prove -- to Yazoo City and to herself.
Every now and then a movie comes along that makes me wonder: Have I become a curmudgeon? Is there something wrong with me that I don't find all this charming? Beth Henley's gallows humor struck me funny when I saw Crimes of the Heart on stage, but no Henley-scripted film that I've seen has rung my chimes. Maybe the self-conscious artificiality of the characters' dialogue and eccentric behavior work better on stage; their theatricality seems cartoony on the big screen. There's hardly a moment when I could believe the people in this movie are real human beings; they're all Characters, in the sense of "That old Bill Twombly who likes to weed his garden in the nude is quite a character." Peopled with these unlikely personages, the movie ends up smacking of self-love, congratulating itself for being so quirky and eccentric. Quirky is fine with me if the film carries it off, but Raising Arizona this isn't.
The humor of Miss Firecracker often didn't work for me. Some moments that wanted to be humorous tended to strike me as more disturbing, such as the story in which we learn that Carnelle's aunt took medicine for her pituitary problem that caused her to grow long black hair like an ape. I suppose this setup could be funny in some circumstances, but here it just seems repellent -- not to mention highly unlikely. Likewise, I suspect Carnelle is supposed to be hilarious, but I just felt embarrassed for her. Holly Hunter isn't to be faulted: She brings energy, skill, and dedication to our heroine, but the film almost never stops insisting on how ridiculous Carnelle is. We're invited to simultaneously sympathize with her and look down on her. It's an uncomfortable relationship to have with a character, particularly the one who comes closest to being the audience surrogate. I pitied Carnelle, and I was delighted when she found some strength and independence at long last, but I squirmed every time the screenplay made her mispronounce "pituitary" or deliver a line like "They say we all gonna be dyin' some day. I believe it, too."
Hunter is not alone in bringing more talent to this enterprise than the film knows what to do with. Tim Robbins as Delmount is enjoyable but completely impossible to believe; he fancies himself a philosopher, which largely means that he makes superior remarks to everyone, and makes the local girls swoon even though he looks as if he's never had a shower in his life. He also loves to dance the tango with his sister Elain, which opens up a whole other can of worms. Perhaps this is supposed to be more quirky southern behavior, but it looks awfully incestuous to me, especially when coupled with his too-fierce interest in the status of Elain's rocky marriage. The film doesn't treat this possible undercurrent as anything more than amusing, which in itself is hard to stomach. Alfre Woodard is fun to watch as Popeye, who talks too much and has more energy than she knows what to do with, and Scott Glenn is scruffily charming, but neither has a lot to do. The actor who comes off best is Steenburgen: Her Elain has actually been scripted with a smidgen of complexity, and Steenburgen does a great job of hinting that the selfish core beneath the beaming beauty-queen demeanor actually hides a deeper level of neediness. For the most part, though, these first-rate actors are underused, and although I imagine they had a fun time playing these wacky characters, I suspect I had less fun watching them.
First Look has released Miss Firecracker at a very low price, so the inclusion of any extras is a bonus: We're given the theatrical trailer, in widescreen but in truly reprehensible condition (substantially faded and riddled with grain and dirt), and a three-minute-long slideshow of color and black-and-white stills set to the Miss Firecracker theme music. There are also a few trailers for unrelated films. The audio and video of this transfer are decent but not sensational: Although audio is quite clear, volume levels fluctuate greatly, and video is mostly clear but a bit dingy in color, as if there has been some fading. On the other hand, this is how I remember Crimes of the Heart looking, so perhaps this is just the palette directors choose for Southern gothic comedies.
Perhaps I'm being oversensitive to the film's over-the-top approach to Southern life; after all, as a Southerner I can be a bit touchy when my neighbors are portrayed in movies as "lively loons" (to quote the DVD insert). I would imagine that viewers who have never had any actual experience of the South might take to the quirkiness of this film and greet its eccentric characters with delight. Or perhaps you may find that you can relate to these characters in a way that I can't.
Despite what I see as its shortcomings, I will say this for Miss Firecracker: Its stage origins are nearly undetectable. Henley's own screen adaptation and the direction by Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) open up the action with lots of different locations and outdoor scenes, so there's very little of that claustrophobia that often bedevils films adapted from the stage. This sense of action and movement helps keep the viewer's interest, and although some dialogue lands with the significant thud of necessary blocks of exposition, by and large we're spared the kind of long, talky scenes that signal a theatrical pedigree. And I have to admit that I always enjoy parodies of beauty pageants. Most of the moments in this film that come closest to working for me are glimpses of the exquisite horror of the Miss Firecracker contest itself. These scenes are also aided by the presence of the priceless Ann Wedgeworth (Evening Shade), who is always a delight.
I should also note that, even if the characters and action are hard to believe, the setting is not. Miss Firecracker was shot on location in Yazoo City, and the film does gain some credibility and interest from the use of authentic locations. With these points in its favor, you may find that you aren't as annoyed as I am by the artificiality of the rest of the film. If you enjoyed Crimes of the Heart or felt that Steel Magnolias erred only by being too sedate, you should probably give Miss Firecracker a viewing. Don't let me stop you.
If you're already a fan of Miss Firecracker, you'll be pleased to see it released on DVD at an affordable price and in a respectable transfer. Those who haven't yet seen it should probably consider a rental before a purchase, unless you're an avowed fan of comic Southern gothics or of one of the stars in the cast. Or, of course, if you just want to see Holly Hunter tap dance. That's probably reason enough to justify a rental, come to think of it. Who'd have guessed she could do a split?
It grieves me to rule against a film with such promise, but I must draw the line. Miss Firecracker is guilty of preciousness and of underusing a fine cast. In view of the strong work the actors have produced in the interim, I'll suspend the sentence -- as long as Tim Robbins never scrapes up road kill onscreen again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG