Dolly Did It First
Armond White

JoleneDirected by Dan IrelandRuntime: 120 min.You can’t call a heroine “Jolene” without evoking Dolly Parton’s great 1973 Country-Western single which, when used in Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, gave a haunting, authenticating quality to that story of a Southern woman’s travails. E.L. Doctorow traded on the power of Parton’s song in his short story “Jolene: A Life” but came up with only half as much feeling or sincerity. Dan Ireland’s new film adaptation of Doctorow does a little better. He treats Doctorow’s tale as a comic picaresque about a girl (Jolene, played by Jessica Chastain) from South Carolina who learns how to flirt and how to survive. Downplaying Doctorow’s condescending literary and class ironies, Ireland creates something more like a queer-inflected Candide. In fact, Ireland’s film, with its striking red-and-pink fantasy chromatics cued to Parton’s memorable description of “flaming locks of auburn hair,” most resembles the bawdy ’60s novel Candy, while simultaneously paying tribute to Parton’s pop music classic.Driven by the mercurial flash and depth of Chastain’s movie debut (her mixture of uncertainty, temptation and trust are as good as Sissy Spacek in Carrie), Jolene touches on the experience of sexual innocence and graceful experience that has been Ireland’s theme in The Whole Wide World, The Velocity of Gary and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. He shows a lively and poignant sensitivity as Jolene moves across country, taking in the innocent longings of confused suitors. (“You’re an orphan in the storm just like me!” enthuses a tattooed musician who becomes the second in Jolene’s series of husbands.Ireland understands how sexuality outpaces thought, with emotional confusion often the result. From Chastain to Dermot Mulroney, Theresa Russell, Rupert Friend, Chazz Palminteri, Frances Fisher and Michael Vartan, the cast gives Ireland the erotic intensity to make substantial drama out of sexual farce. A final shift toward Christian-bashing betrays Jolene’s own generosity and ignores her spiritual credo—“That’s my business”—but this miscalculation is as much Doctorow’s as Ireland’s. Only that flaw prevents this engaging film from earning Dolly Parton’s respect.