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Dolly Parton should’ve been a bigger movie star than she was. Sure, she’s a country music icon, so it’s not like she got the short end of the stick, but I think she brought something special to the limited number of movies she was in. She’s absolutely magnetic in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and in 9 to 5 she upstages the likes of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (who are also great in that film). Before you say “what about Rhinestone,” I don’t think you can place any of the blame for that on her. In 1991 Parton came back to movie theaters with the comedy Straight Talk, but it came and went from theaters pretty quickly.
Parton plays Shirlee, a small-town lady who likes to talk. It turns out she likes talking a little bit too much, as it has caused her to lose her job as a dance instructor. Too much talking, not enough dancing. With no job prospects and a slimeball boyfriend played by Michael Madsen, she decides to head off to Chicago in search of new horizons. She ends up with a job as a receptionist at a talk radio station. However, when she wanders into the studio searching for coffee, she is mistaken for the psychologist host of a new call-in show. Of course, the show is an instant success.
With a hit on his hands, the station manager (Griffin Dunne) launches a campaign to make “Doctor” Shirlee Chicago’s new favorite radio personality. The fact that she isn’t actually a doctor doesn’t matter. The meteoric rise, though, catches the eye of James Woods’ curious newspaper reporter. He sets out to learn the truth about Shirlee for a tell-all article, but naturally, romantic sparks begin to fly.
Straight Talk features a formula that we’ve seen in many other movies. We have a charming lead character who somewhat unwittingly gets roped into a big lie that they struggle to maintain. In this film, though, it never feels like Shirlee is really being all that dishonest. Sure, she’s not actually a “doctor,” my understanding is the Dr. Phil doesn’t exactly have a license to practice medicine anymore either, but Shirlee is truthful about everything else. The doctor lie is just because Griffin Dunne’s bosses insist that the host of the show be a doctor. I don’t think that she ever claims to be a licensed professional any more than Dr. Dre does. The fact that Shirlee comes across as such a genuine character is what makes the film enjoyable, despite a very by-the-book storyline.
I don’t claim that Dolly Parton is an amazing actress. Her range is limited, but she has a way of lighting up the screen. This is a role that she is perfectly suited for. Her southern-fried quips (“Get down off the cross, honey, somebody needs the wood”) are effective ammunition for disarming the hardened big-city types. In some ways, this is a fish-out-of-water story, except that the fish instantly declares “this is my pond now.” I think it’s fair to say that your enjoyment of this film entirely rests on how easily you are charmed by Parton, and I was charmed
The film does feature a strong and eclectic cast of supporting players. James Woods does make a good match for the spirited country star. Together they make a mismatched but believable couple. The rest of the cast is full of familiar faces, including Philp Bosco, Charles Fleischer, Jerry Orbach, Spalding Gray, Jay Thomas, John Sayles, and Teri Hatcher. All do their job in this film, which is basically to make Parton look good. The one rough spot is Griffin Dunne, who turns in a slightly unhinged performance that feels like it exists on a separate comedic plane than the one the rest of the cast has settled on. A strong lawyer could make a case for attempted scene-stealing.
Of course, with an iconic country star as the lead, the studio had to involve her in the soundtrack. Parton ended up composing nine new songs for the film, plus a remake of her classic “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” It’s strange, but the songs are a bit of a mixed blessing. They are all good songs, I’d gladly put the soundtrack on while doing the laundry or cleaning my basement. In the context of the film, however, they do become a bit of a distraction. It would’ve been criminal not to have Dolly Parton contribute music to the film, but I think we may have gotten overkill in this particular case.
When all is said and done, though, the movie left me smiling. It’s the kind of film that is pleasant enough to just sit back and let it breeze over you on a lazy weekend afternoon. Even if you’re the type who tends to give the side-eye when it comes to country music, the magnetism of Dolly is strong.