Movie Review: “Big Stone Gap”

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“Big Stone Gap” is an old-fashioned, cornball country comedy made endurable by some sharp dialogue and efforts to go easy on the corn.

It’s set in the small town that provides its title, a remote corner of the Virginia mountains, the heart of coal country, in 1978.

Ashley Judd stars as Ave Maria Mulligan, who inherited the town pharmacy from her late father. Whoopi Goldberg is the hammy, sassy pharmacist there, who recognizes the novelty of being a black woman doing that sort of work in this part of the country at that period in time. But Fleeta’s real job is turning every wisecrack into backstory and exposition, such as when Ave Maria’s Italian mother dies in the opening scenes.

Girl, “Why did you put a rose on your daddy’s grave, after he treated you like a sack-a dirt?”

Ave Maria is this year’s director at the summer outdoor drama associated with Big Stone Gap, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” She’s not married, “the town spinster,” she narrates, even though she dates the diva-ish star of “Pine,” the school marching band teacher (John Benjamin Hickey). But everybody knows that she SHOULD be with coal miner-Jack (Patrick Wilson), kind of the town catch and a bit of a lady’s man.

Jack and Ave Maria do-se-do around this meant-to-be match, and assorted colorful locals poke their noses into their business as they do.

Meanwhile, there’s opening night of the “State (Outdoor) Drama” of Virginia, sure to be a bit of a funny fiasco, and another piece of big news. John Warner is running for the Senate, and he’s coming to town with his bride, Elizabeth Taylor. The pharmacy has a run on hair dyes (all the women want Liz’s color), there’s a lot of fuss over food and a sort of pageant to welcome her.

And Ave Maria has this other issue, letters from her late mother that call into question her patrimony.

Writer-director Adriana Trigiani, a writer and producer long-associated with Bill Cosby’s various TV projects, grew up in Big Stone Gap and adapted her own novel for this grab-bag of a comedy. The sense of place comes through, and the 1978 Warner campaign with Taylor, and the inclusion of one of the South’s vintage outdoor dramas in the plot, work. She made have the pedigree to suggest authenticity, but you can’t fight Hollywood tendencies, even in a place so remote they have to pipe the sunshine in.

Southerners will recognize it as one of those pictures where Jenna Elfman can be Iva Lou, the “sexiest librarian in three counties,” where Italian-Australian Anthony LaPaglia drawls as a local attorney and sometime rescue squad member who keeps his orange safety vest on, most of the time, because you never know. Put Jasmine Guy in a Mammy costume and set her to boiling up a batch of soap.

Fans of TV’s “30 Rock” might see Jane Krakowski, in dance tights, speaking Southern and hurling herself at menfolk as Sweet Sue, and wonder if this is one of those sure-fire bombs her clueless diva on the TV show was forced to do, every off-season hiatus.

Judd and Wilson underplay their parts to compensate, and have some nice scenes together even if all the coupling and uncoupling in this movie is abrupt and merely pre-ordained by script requirements.

It really goes against the grain to hear a guy describe coal mining as this “magical” thing, quiet and dark and a little scary.

“I’d never do much of anything if I didn’t do the thing I’m afraid of.”

With so much of what dominates the multiplex looking like, sounding like and reflecting the values of Hollywood– the place and the state of mind — the few American movies set elsewhere are to be cherished, just for reminding us that it’s big ol’ country out there, in between the coasts.

But the uneven and only occasionally satisfying “Big Stone Gap” lets down the side. It’s neither of its time, nor sophisticated enough to transcend that time. Like the rhubarb pie a character brags on in an early scene, Trigiani has made a comedy that is less than the sum of its ingredients, that no amount of sugar or cherries can disguise. 2stars1

MPAA Rating: PG – 13 for brief suggestive material

Cast: Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, John Benjamin Hickey, Anthony LaPaglia, Jane Krakowski, Jasmine Guy
Credits: Written and directed by Adriana Trigiani. A Picturehouse release.

Running time: 1:42

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