[Review] – Virginia

4 Jun

Title: Virginia
Year: 2012
Director: Dustin Lance Black
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Emma Roberts, Harrison Gilbertson, Carrie Preston, Toby Jones, Amy Madigan
MPAA Rating: R, language and some sexual content
Runtime: 116 min
IMDb Rating: 5.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 5%
Metacritic: 33

For seven weeks in the fall of 2009, a movie titled What’s Wrong With Virginia was set to shoot in West Michigan, the directing effort of Dustin Lance Black, who earlier in the year had picked up an Oscar for writing Milk. The cast was led by Jennifer Connelly, an Academy Award winner herself, and Ed Harris, a four-time nominee. So I guess you could say that expectations were certainly present when it premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. Once it did, however, the reviews were absolutely horrible. So Mr. Black went back into the editing room to retool his film with a new editor. Now, over a year and a half later, we’re finally getting to see the film, now simply titled Virginia. And I’m afraid to say it’s still pretty much a mess.

I call it a mess and not simply bad (though it is that, too) because I still very much admire what Mr. Black was trying to accomplish, you get the sense that this is a brave little film and that somewhere in it lies a movie that’s actually pretty good. But the fact of the matter here is that this one, the film we actually have for our consumption, is just all over the place as far as tone goes, and that not even with one of Ms. Connelly’s typically good performances can it manage to really reel us into the complicated story it’s trying to tell. Quite a pity, actually.

The titular character is the one played by Ms. Connelly, a charming woman, though suffering from a mental disorder, in charge of raising her beloved son all by her lonesome in the kind of small-town where secrets can’t be kept for that long. Virginia’s biggest secret concerns her decades-long affair with the married Mormon Sheriff of the town, Richard Tipton, the role played by Mr. Harris, one that delves in a bit of S&M and that may or may not have been what resulted in the birth of Virginia’s son, Emmett. Things start getting even more complicated when the affair is thrown up in the air when Richard decides to run for public office and can’t have any embarrassing secrets, and even more so when Emmett begins a romantic relationship with Jessie, the Sheriff’s daughter.

As you can see, Virginia is a film that even in its plot description sounds absolutely convoluted. There are just always too many moving parts spinning towards different directions here, too many subplots and odd characters about town, keeping us way too distracted for us to really pinpoint what the whole purpose of this film was. Ms. Connelly really does try her best to keep this movie together, playing this schizophrenic woman who doesn’t medicate with the bravest conviction, making her passionate and actually believable no matter how much kooky stuff Mr. Black stuffs into this character. Then there’s her relationship with her son, to whom she’s fearlessly devoted to, as he is to her, though it’s him the one who takes care of her more often that the opposite.

It’s an admirable performance by Ms. Connelly, and you also admire Mr. Black because this is all somewhat autobiographical, himself having grown up in a family with a history of the disorder, but it’s not enough to get past the fact that Virginia is a mess. Adding another layer of craziness, you have Virginia experiencing symptoms related to lung cancer, and faking those symptoms to say that she’s actually pregnant in an effort to keep the Sheriff on her hook. It’s just too much, you know, the pregnancy claims when she actually has cancer, her continuous smoking and refusal of treatment for that cancer, the fact that you get a scene in which Ms. Connelly dons a gorilla mask to try and rob a bank. You can’t buy into that.

This could have worked, in a tidier way, as a melodrama, probably worked best as one on TV, actually (Mr. Black worked on HBO‘s Big Love, a show that also changed in tone around quite a bit). But as it is, Virginia the movie, just like the character, seems to be schizophrenic, not once really settling for a particular tone, but zig-zagging away from satire to emotional drama to to light-weight comedy. By the time it’s all said and done you won’t care a bit for this film because you’ll have grown far too tired about all the weird decisions it’s taken in an effort to try and find itself and what it wanted to say. An effort that doesn’t come to fruition, instead leaving us with a film that, though with considerable talent involved, and great efforts by its cast to get some soul into their characters, is just a bunch of half-developed ideas, all very different in tone to one another, that just doesn’t amount to much at all.

I’m sad about this whole thing, actually. Because, yes, this is by no means a good film, not one that I would recommend you to go seek out and give a try because it’s not worth that. But I’m sad because even halfway through this film, when it was so clear that this was really going nowhere good, I found myself really wishing for it to turn around and become a decent enough flick. Because, even if this film’s a mess, you have to give props to Mr. Black for trying; the film just slipped out of his control at some point here, probably because he’s far too inexperienced as a director to really know how to make his way around so many ideas, or maybe because he just couldn’t make sense of all of them because of the very personal connections. I don’t know, all I know is that I respect Virginia far more than any other movie I’ve given a C grade.

Grade: C

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