Virginia is a patchy blend of black comedy and Southern gothic melodrama

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Starring Jennifer Connolly and Ed Harris. Rated PG.

At first glance, Virginia seems to have a lot going for it. Produced by Gus Van Sant, it serves as the directorial debut for Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Black’s impressive screenplay for Milk has apparently given him the courage to push the envelope here. Unfortunately, his latest script turns out to be a patchy blend of black comedy and Southern gothic melodrama that inevitably disappoints.

Jennifer Connelly stars in the title role as a mentally unbalanced woman who refuses to admit she’s dying of cancer. Her life revolves around Emmett, her 16-year-old son (Harrison Gilbertson). She’s also deeply involved in a long-time affair with Dick Tipton, the town sheriff (Ed Harris). Dick is a married Mormon who’s running for the state Senate. Although he appears to be an upright family man, he enjoys indulging in kinky sex with Virginia.

Although Virginia has informed her son that his father was a stock-car racer who happened to be passing through town, Emmett has long suspected that Dick is his actual dad. Things get even more complicated when Emmett falls for Dick’s daughter (Emma Roberts). What else does Black add to the mix? Among other things, Dick’s neurotic wife (Amy Madigan) and a cross-dressing blackmailer (Toby Jones).

Even without a running time of almost two hours, the plot would seem bloated with self-indulgence. Despite isolated moments of insight and tenderness, it’s no surprise when the story begins to unravel. It’s a real shame, too, if only because the accomplished cast works so hard to hold everything together.

There are some truly inspiring performances here. This is Connelly’s best work in years. And Harris manages the difficult trick of making us feel genuine empathy for a man who deserves no respect whatsoever. But by the time Virginia grinds to its hollow conclusion, we just want to forget the whole thing ever happened.


Watch the trailer for Virginia.

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