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A heapin‘ slice of cinematic cornpone is served up in Adriana Trigiani‘s adaptation of her best-selling novel set in the titular Virginia town. Featuring a stellar cast apparently seeking to prove that they’re interested in being popular in red states as well as blue, Big Stone Gap goes down relatively easy, but it contains lots of empty calories.
Set in 1978, the plot revolves around the religiously named Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd), the local pharmacist and the town’s self-proclaimed “old maid.” But while she may be technically unmarried, Ave Maria is not wanting for male attention, enjoying a friend-with-benefits relationship with Theodore (John Benjamin Hickey), the school’s marching band teacher, and participating in a subdued mutual flirtation with hunky coal miner Jack (Patrick Wilson, who actually hails from the area) despite the hovering presence of his possessive, flighty girlfriend, Sweet Sue (Jane Krakowski).
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And yes, this is the sort of film in which the homespun characters bear names like Sweet Sue; or Fleeta (Whoopi Goldberg), Ave Maria’s no-nonsense pharmacy employee; or Iva Lou (Jenna Elfman), the sexy librarian; or Spec (Anthony LaPaglia, struggling mightily with his accent), the local attorney/rescue volunteer.
Although the film stumbles around a melodramatic storyline involving the death of Ave Maria’s mother and the subsequent revelation of a parentage secret, it’s mainly concerned with the teasing romance between the pharmacist and Jack. At one point he actually proposes, but she rebuffs him on the grounds that he is rushing things. You could practically hear the sighs of the romantically deprived in the audience.
Other subplots involve the town’s annual production of The Trail of the Lonesome Pines, which Ave Maria is directing (it’s an actual local tradition, and major tourist attraction), and the real-life, ill-fated visit of then-senatorial candidate John Warner and his movie star wife, Elizabeth Taylor (both seen only from the back), with the latter having to be rushed to the hospital after choking on a fried chicken bone.
Even when Ave Maria suffers a nervous breakdown, it’s depicted as little more than a minor incident signaled by a pie-eating compulsion. The writer/director, whose previous credits include writing and producing for The Cosby Show, gives the proceedings a decidedly sitcom spin, although considering the languorous pacing it has more of the feel of a miniseries.
Still, the film has its charms, mainly provided by Judd and Wilson’s laid-back, appealing performances and the hardworking efforts of the supporting cast, which also includes Chris Sarandon, who figures in one of the screenplay’s more contrived elements. And if you’re bored, you can enjoy the gorgeous autumnal scenery, filmed with a tourism board reverence that should make it at least a local hit.
Production: Altar Identity Studios, Tempesta Films, A Glory of Everything Company
Cast: Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, John Benjamin Hickey, Jane Krakowski, Judith Ivey, Chris Sarandon, Jasmine Guy, Anthony LaPaglia, Jenna Elfman, Paul Wilson
Director/screenwriter: Adriana Trigiani
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, James Spies
Executive producers: J.E. Craig, Jean Morrissey
Director of photography: Reynaldo Passig
Production designer: Eloise Crane Stammerjohn
Editor: Christopher Passig
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Composer: John Leventhal
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes
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