9 First Impressions of Dustin Lance Black's Wild Directorial Debut What's Wrong With Virginia
Writing Milk earned him an Oscar, but naturally, what Dustin Lance Black really wanted to do was direct. And thus we have What's Wrong With Virginia, the behind-the-camera debut of the most celebrated gay ex-Mormon working in cinema today -- which might seem irrelevant until you see the wild pastiche of themes and tones he's whipped up here. As per festival custom, a few first impressions follow the jump.
[Mild spoilers follow.]
1. This opening score -- particularly over the small-town/carnival idylls painted into the credits sequence -- is quite lovely. Someone's seen Far From Heaven!
2. Oh wow. Just when you think this might be a period film -- in close-up, necktied Sheriff Dick Tipton (Ed Harris) comes to a door frame carrying Virginia Nicholaus (Jennifer Connelly) in a long-sleeved floral-print dress -- Black goes high and wide to prove he's attempting anything but. Police cruisers surround a house, T-shirted onlookers observe the scene from the fringe, and somewhere off-site, a young man in a Mormon missionary outfit runs down a rural road with a suitcase. And what is this male nurse played by Barry Shabaka Henley doing in the back of this cop car with Connelly? Barely 15 minutes in you've got characters trading off narration, persistent talk of dangling earlobes as a hereditary trait, and Connelly vamping in all her blonde, crimp-haired, white-trash glory. You've also lost about 50 fest-fatigued viewers to attrition.
3. Did NASCAR driver Ward Burton actually sign off on his likeness being invoked on a poster as the possible father of some crazy lady's bastard son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson)? Oh, I guess so: He makes a cameo while Emmett, the missionary-dressed boy we saw earlier, trades narration with his mother. Seriously, this one gets weirder and weirder.
4. Forget about the missionary call-out, though. Black even dares to show Sheriff Tipton in the throes of his regular fetish-play with Virginia, saying a prayer in front of a sex manual and showing how, in Virginia's words, "He likes to keep his Mormon underwear on while we do it." Black just isn't going to let this thing go, is he?
5. This is a well-acted movie from top to bottom, but Connelly stands out across the board for her ability to keep up with Black's sudden, almost bipolar tonal shifts. They're of a piece, really. The rest of the cast -- including Harris, Gilbertson, Emma Roberts as Emmett's girlfriend (and the sheriff's daughter) and Toby Jones as the cross-dressing beach-boardwalk carnival manager -- basically behaves at one or two degrees' remove from Virginia's antics. Which doesn't make them bad; It just makes them slightly more reactive. This movie doesn't work without Connelly taking her mental-illness shtick a level beyond -- for example, stuffing the top of her pantyhose with a ball of dirty clothes and telling everyone, "I'm having Sheriff Tipton's baby." It's hilarious, it's sad, it's scary, and it's thrilling to watch how everyone in her orbit -- hell, the whole community -- responds to her provocations.
6. My fears of Black going a little too on-the-nose with the sexual-hypocrisy angle were mostly unfounded, though the overt parallels between the John Edwards/Rielle Hunter scandal are kind of hard to ignore. After a while they feel a little too easy and undercut Connelly's work, but it's temporary. And again, when it works -- such as when Virginia crashes a Tipton for Senate event with a floppy, mismatched hat obscuring her face (poorly) -- it's really pretty funny.
7. This kid Harrison Gilbertson is kind of brilliant. His Emmett wants nothing more than to marry Jessie Tipton, whether it means converting to Mormonism or persuading her father -- who's running for State Senate and would sooner throttle Emmett than have him revealed to be his love child with Virginia -- that he wants only the best for both families. But Gilbertson endows him with his own wild swings between piercing intelligence, manchild naivete, filial tenderness and brooding matinee heartthrob. Black will absolutely have his critics for this movie, but no one can take away the role -- and, if we're to believe Black can direct -- the actual performance he afforded a gifted young actor.
8. These are exactly the kinds of story and characters that, 90 percent of the time, you'd probably see attenuated into a five- or six-season HBO or Showtime arc, overstaying their welcome a la Weeds. I'm sure it occurred to Black, a Big Love alumnus, to do the same thing, and Virginia does leap a little too freely between character arcs -- as if he can continue them on another episode. But he manages to tie them up quite cleanly, even ingeniously, and whatever deus ex machina he does toss in (a gun here, a buzzing vibrator there -- seriously) is added with a kind of self-effacing brio. Speaking of which...
9. Twist ending! Nice one, DLB.