Following two decorous biopics delving into figures both beloved (Harvey Milk) and despised (J. Edgar Hoover), Dustin Lance Black sets his sights on Middle America with Virginia, an unfortunate attempt at satire that plumbs some of the same territory he explored as a writer for Big Love. The film takes on small-town peccadilloes and backdoor shenanigans with no real sense of adhering them into a coherent storyline, arraying a scattershot collection of grotesqueries around its befuddled titular character, played capably by Jennifer Connelly, with just a little too much mannered zeal.
A single mom wasting away in a dreary beach town, Virginia dreams of escape, working at a local grocery store and talking about taking off for San Francisco. She’s involved with the town sheriff, Dick Tipton (Ed Harris), a devout Mormon embarking in a state senate campaign. The fragile balance of their long-term affair gets upset when her son, Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson), falls in love with his daughter, Jessie (Emma Roberts). This budding relationship is menaced by a variety of difficulties, from the sheriff’s violent disapproval, to the pair’s religious differences and the fact that they may actually be half-siblings. The two press on anyway, paving the way for their parents’ eventual destruction, building toward the soggy climax established in an opening flash-forward. All this takes place in a hothouse small-town setting that evokes Peyton Place-style soapiness, something Black covers with ironic distance and constant jabs at the ridiculousness of the town’s inhabitants.
It’s not a problem in itself that none of these characters is really likable, but the rampant, frustrating stupidity assigned to them is debilitating. Befitting the focus on the suburban underbelly, nearly everyone is hiding something, from the cross-dressing carnival owner to Virginia, whose progressive tubercular condition leaves her spitting up vibrantly colored splotches of blood. There’s also Dick, whose basement workshop/sex-toy repository acts as a demented mirror to his atrophied marriage to his unnamed wife (Amy Madigan).
Unfortunately, there’s little sympathy granted to these people, and the revelation of their hidden vices comes across like an increasingly mean series of punchlines. The film is too intently focused on exposing how bad they are at maintaining their secrets, which leads to a slew of stupid outcomes: bank robberies with gorilla masks, wrongful imprisonments, and an aborted suicide attempt. Rather than unite its flawed characters into a convincing portrait of dysfunction, Virginia strings them along aimlessly under the limp auspices of satire, a fuzzy narrative that isn’t helped by multiple dangling threads and a confusing time structure. All this makes for a messy, frustrating movie, one where the only sympathetic character is Emmet’s naïve, lovesick teenager, who seems dead set on unwittingly miring himself in the same nasty muck as everyone else.