Dolly Did It First

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Jolene

Directed by Dan Ireland

Runtime: 120 min.

You
can’t call a heroine “Jolene” without evoking Dolly Parton’s great 1973
Country-Western single which, when used in Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, gave a haunting,
authenticating quality to that story of a Southern woman’s travails.
E.L. Doctorow traded on the power of Parton’s song in his short story
“Jolene: A Life” but came up with only half as much feeling or
sincerity. Dan Ireland’s new film adaptation of Doctorow does a little
better. He treats Doctorow’s tale as a comic picaresque about a girl
(Jolene, played by Jessica Chastain) from South Carolina who learns how
to flirt and how to survive. Downplaying Doctorow’s condescending
literary and class ironies, Ireland creates something more like a
queer-inflected Candide. In fact, Ireland’s film, with its
striking red-and-pink fantasy chromatics cued to Parton’s memorable
description of “flaming locks of auburn hair,” most resembles the bawdy
’60s novel Candy, while simultaneously paying tribute to Parton’s pop music classic.

Driven

by the mercurial flash and depth of Chastain’s movie debut (her mixture
of uncertainty, temptation and trust are as good as Sissy Spacek in
Carrie), Jolene touches on the experience of sexual innocence and
graceful experience that has been Ireland’s theme in The Whole Wide
World, The Velocity of Gary and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. He
shows a lively and poignant sensitivity as Jolene moves across country,
taking in the innocent longings of confused suitors. (“You’re an orphan
in the storm just like me!” enthuses a tattooed musician who becomes
the second in Jolene’s series of husbands.

Ireland
understands how sexuality outpaces thought, with emotional confusion
often the result. From Chastain to Dermot Mulroney, Theresa Russell,
Rupert Friend, Chazz Palminteri, Frances Fisher and Michael Vartan, the
cast gives Ireland the erotic intensity to make substantial drama out of
sexual farce. A final shift toward Christian-bashing betrays Jolene’s
own generosity and ignores her spiritual credo—“That’s my business”—but
this miscalculation is as much Doctorow’s as Ireland’s. Only that flaw
prevents this engaging film from earning Dolly Parton’s respect.

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