Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Unless you’re Jolene (Jessica Chastain), the titular red-haired object of affection at the center of Dan Ireland’s tiresome coming-of-age drama Jolene, whose endless bungles in love take that familiar proverb and shred it into Swiss cheese. Not only does Jolene fall for the same manipulative tricks throughout the four romantic relationships making up the film’s narrative core, she does it without ever seriously considering the traumatic complexities at work. Ireland and screenwriter Dennis Yares think it’s enough to give Jolene a reflective voiceover narration that explains her varying emotions, but the aesthetic strips Chastain of any chance at delving into the nuances of her character’s rollercoaster life, spelling out every tear and smile right on cue.
Jolene’s natural sunny aura and painterly reflection attract older, more powerful lovers from the very beginning, and these characters often use her to fill emotional voids. Phil (Dermot Mulroney), the creepy uncle of Jolene’s dimwit first husband, becomes enamored with her soft skin and red hair, seducing her with equal parts charm and sleaze. After their torrid affair completely upends the already uneasy psychological suburban setting between Phil and his wife Kay (played by a brilliantly volatile Theresa Russell), Jolene is sent to a juvenile mental ward, where a tough guard named Cindy (Frances Fisher) fawns over her sunshine freckles and introduces her to a whole other sexuality. But Cindy’s obsessive need to keep Jolene locked up in her house is just the same as Phil’s manipulative fairy-tale promises, and Ireland positions sexual preferences of all kinds as capable of bringing out the vulnerable worst in people.
This trend of flash-bang romances continues as Jolene hitchhikes across America, meeting a charming French guitarist in Phoenix appropriately named Coco (Rupert Friend) who unearths her artistic talents via a tattoo shop. Then, a life as a classy stripper in Vegas brings Jolene into the world of old-school crooner/gambler Sal (Chazz Palminteri), who introduces her to the glories of high-end art. None of this prepares Jolene for her most devastating relationship with a Tulsa business magnet, a young religious zealot named Brad (Michael Vartan) whose fundamentalist anger and guilt fulfills all the clichéd qualifications of a right-wing evangelical capitalist pig. When Brad expectedly turns physically violent, the film transcends its cookie-cutter television style and holds on the brutal trauma that unfolds. But this resonance doesn’t last long as Jolene’s twangy Southern voice calmly reflects on the pain, simultaneously inducing eye-rolling and bewilderment.
Jolene‘s main themes, including the manipulation of youth, the fragility of love, and the suppression of individuality, try to carry the wonky dialogue into complex territory. But after the fourth romantic go around, it’s hard to take Jolene’s plight as anything but repetitive. Jolene floats from one life-altering moment to the next with tender optimism, that maybe things will be different this time, but the caricatures she encounters foreshadow their deception and shadiness miles before the actual acts of betrayal. It’s not ignorance either, because Jolene understands that she shouldn’t get wrapped up in these relationships. The desire to be loved becomes too much for the young woman, and the obvious red flags eventually become signposts for the audience as opposed to the character.
Even worse, all of Jolene’s encounters feel connected with different eras, as if the film keeps getting pushed through a horrid time warp. The opening sequence with Phil is stuck in a bleached out 1950s Americana, with white picket fences, retro looking cars, and hokey dialogue, while the cheesy Las Vegas scenes hint at a moment in time when Sinatra and Martin ruled the roost. Also, the One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest-like mental ward moments couldn’t be any more familiar (a broken mirror leads to a botched suicide) and unintentionally outlandish. It’s interesting that Jolene’s looks, hairstyles, and actions change with every temporal shift, but the filmmakers can’t connect these physical alterations with a biting critique about the way significant others mold her into a warped self-portrait of themselves.
“Life is about moments,” Jolene ridiculously muses toward the end of the film, and it puts a shiny cherry on top of an already obvious crescendo of glossy enlightenment. Amazingly, Jolene sees her everlasting hope for power in the glimmering lights of Los Angeles, and this final experience subverts the film’s fledgling themes of female empowerment (apparently being a movie star can solve everything). Jolene and its lead actor have their heart in the right place, but there isn’t enough bite to either film or performance to convey these experiences as anything but hazy memories of a woman obsessed with looking back through a rose-colored lens. Jolene’s pain, regret, and wisdom deserve a much more nuanced platform to stand on, a cinematic surface that doesn’t crumble under the weight of its own gluttony for punishment.