REVIEW: Jennifer Connelly Brings the Crazy, Dustin Lance Black Brings the Mess in Virginia
Dustin Lance Black spoke of his conservative Mormon upbringing when he won the 2009 Oscar for best original screenplay for Milk, and traces of that childhood are all over his most recent directorial effort Virginia, a garbled coming-of-age story and portrait of a mentally ill mother. The titular character, played by a blonde Jennifer Connelly, suffers from traumatic onset schizophrenia — she's a fey, childlike woman who lives alone with her protective teenage son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) and has been carrying on a decades-long affair with the town sheriff Dick Tipton (Ed Harris), a devout Mormon who's married with kids.
The beautiful, unstable Virginia grew up in foster care and has been treated badly by men all her life, and her relationship with the sheriff may be the kindest and most stable she's had, but it's also a secret (though everyone in their Virginia beach town seems to know about it). That is a problem when he decides to run for state senate and his crazy mistress becomes a potential liability — his need to break things off on top of a diagnosis of lung cancer she decides to ignore unbalances Virginia and sets a string of events in motion that lead to dramatic scene promised in the film's introduction.
The film tends to treat Virginia like a tragic heroine of a vintage melodrama, uncomfortably romanticizing her mental fragility right from that opening scene, which irises out on her being carried from a house surrounded by policemen. "It wasn't just me, everybody I know in town wants out," she intones in one of her dueling voiceovers with her son, outlining her longing to head somewhere new — to get a fresh start in San Francisco, a plan she talks about but seems unsure how to make headway on. It's one of the many themes the film raises and then lets drift away for a while — Virginia is so scattershot it feels like it's a vehicle created to loosely hold a group of ideas rather than function as anything coherent.
Take Emmett's romance with Jessie (Emma Roberts), Sheriff Tipton's daughter and the only girl who's nice to him. Jessie's forbidden to him not just due to her religious convictions and their class differences, but because she might be his half-sister — who exactly fathered Emmett remains a mystery. But a biology class lesson about detached earlobes is enough to have him convinced they're in the clear, and after that it's dropped in favor of their talking about religion, which also then fades away. Virginia sublimates the lung cancer she refuses to acknowledge into a hysterical pregnancy (after an aside that suggests Tipton couldn't impregnate her in the first place because he keeps his temple garments on when dallying with her, getting his jollies through non-nudity requiring means). He pays her off, anyway, using campaign money, until he stops with apparently little consequence.
Black recut his film after a poorly received premiere at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival, where it went out under the title What's Wrong With Virginia. Having not seen the initial cut, I can't speak to its coherence, but if this represents a clarification, it must have been muddy indeed. Tonally, the film goes from lushly fanciful, with its twinkling score and shots of the waterfront amusement part at night, to campy, with Virginia stuffing clothes down her pantyhose to fake a belly bump in order to inform everyone in town she's bearing Sheriff Tipton's baby. It's unhurried enough to have the feel of a 45 that's being played at 33 1/3 rpm, drowsing without giving a sense of how much time is passing.
Tipton is a hypocrite who does some awful things as the film goes on ("This life is a grain of sand in time and it's the next life that counts — then we'll all be together," he says to Virginia when he ends things with her, a line lifted from Black's own childhood and a truly shit, sanctimonious thing to say to someone you're abandoning). The film's other glances toward Mormonism, including a visit from two young missionaries, are more kitschy, seemingly there more to make it clear that Tipton's not representative of the entire religion than for any particular purpose. Faith becomes another of the film's unemulsified ingredients.
Virginia does feature a strong performance from Connelly, who's vulnerable and appealing while still being genuinely and alarmingly unpredictable. It cuts through some of the film's milky portrayal of the character as a beautiful martyr — Virginia shows that she's smarter than many think, and that she does have some agency and awareness, tucked away in her airy house full of colored glass bottles. With its imagery of amusement park rides and idle seasonal jobs, Atlantic City weddings and thwarted small-town robberies, Virginia is like a box full of someone's long ago summer vacation keepsakes: pretty, but representative of memories and meaning no one else will be able to grasp.