Judge Bill Gibron would have preferred 90 minutes of Dolly Parton to this reserved disappointment.
A Life Between the Exit Signs
E.L. Doctrow never really gets what his brilliant writing deserves. From page to silver screen, something is always lacking. Ragtime was a decent adaptation, but is now in desperate need of an overhaul/remake. The Book of Daniel take was a flop, receiving none of the post-Oscar buzz a newly crowned Timothy Hutton was supposed to bring to the fictionalized story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. And Billy Bathgate was perhaps the wrong time to experiment with an untried talent (Loren Dean) and Dustin Hoffman as a Prohibition-era mobster. Because of his desire to deal with the past, he tends to fall into the period piece dilemma—that is, the question of how to bring modern actors into his often complicated, nostalgic circumstances—and his tendency to mix real life with fiction leaves fans of both sides of history in fits. Luckily, the new film Jolene is not burdened by such stunted costumed dramatics. Instead, it is a nominal look at the life of a redheaded Southern belle as she makes her way across a rapidly changing decade of a recognizable United States. While not always invested, we somehow remain intrigued.
The title character is based around the classic Dolly Parton song of the same name (and Doctrow's short story interpretation). Jolene (Jessica Chastain, Law and Order: Trial by Jury) in her youth heads out to find her fortune, only to wind up with several different men, all of whom add additional subtext to her already episodic adventures. While still a teen, she takes up with the degenerate uncle (Dermot Mulroney, Zodiac) of her imbecilic first husband. Then somehow, she hooks up with an equally suspicious tattoo artist (Rupert Friend, Cheri). Along the way she becomes a prostitute and a stripper, a gambler's (Chazz Palminteri, A Bronx Tale) doll and the bride of a crazy Texas moneyman—and psycho religious nutjob (Michael Vartan, Alias). Naturally, such wanderlust leads to reflections on who she is and how far she's come since those days in a South Carolina orphanage. Her decisions also leave her with scars—mostly emotional, some physical—that seem destined to drive everything to telling, tragic ends.
Let's get one thing straight right up front—Jolene is not a gem. It's not some lost festival find that has finally found a sensible distributor to unleash its otherwise ill-considered brilliance on the rest of the world. In simple terms, this is a decent disappointment, a nice enough effort without a lot of dramatic splash to render it remarkable. Sure, Ms. Chastain is good, but she's given several layers of wild child to play. Only a wooden board could screw up this role—and there are times when things come close. The supporting nods are also superficial and stunted, like variations on the archetypical theme of "men as pigs and/or other pork product," except with more manic mannerisms. This is especially true of Vartan, who telegraphs where his obnoxious arc is going early and often. Luckily, Chastain (with help from director Dan Ireland, The Whole Wide World) somehow holds it all together. They can't salvage everything, and even drop the ball on their own from time to time, but we find ourselves engaged in where this girl will go next. While not always winning, Jolene eventually earns our respect—if little else.
As for the technical aspects of the release, we are dealing with a low budget labor of love ported over to the most unforgiving of formats: Blu-ray. That means the movie's basic flatness and lack of expensive production values are highlighted with disturbing frequency here. The 2.35:1 1080p AVC encode is decent, but not definitive, with soft colors and muddy edges everywhere. A little less concerning is the DTS-HD Master Audio mix which does a nice job of balancing narration, dialogue, and Harry Gregson-Williams' evocative score. It's not a big overblown sonic situation, as this is a small, intimate movie most of the time. Still, with the added content involved (an engaging commentary, a nice star interview, a collection of bloopers), you have a quality presentation. It's not perfect, but then again, neither is the film.
The same can even be said for E.L. Doctrow's legacy on the silver screen. Perhaps someday a film will come along that truly captures his unique talent. Jolene, like many before it, barely compares.
Not guilty—but not wholly free from blame. An odd judgment for an equally uneven film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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