Why is John Travolta allowed resurrection after pathetic resurrection, forgiven for endless sins, yet no one cares at all about his frequent former co-star, Olivia Newton-John? Perhaps she should have waited to have her second coming heralded with a Behind the Music episode, but Newton-John returns to the big screen in Sordid Lives, which made the film-fest rounds a year ago. It's a smart role for her, all things considered: She plays a singer, belts out a tune, then disappears until the end of the movie, at which point she sings a couple of songs, mostly old Southern standards such as "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." This way she gets to leave the audience wanting more while simultaneously getting top billing in all the promotional materials. Oh, yeah: The film also delivers the return of Delta Burke.
Give credit to writer-director Del Shores for filling his script with meaty roles for middle-aged women, but aren't there enough good out-of-work actresses who aren't Delta Burke? Given the subject matter, one is tempted to deduce that Burke was cast because she'd be fun for a drag queen to impersonate. Shores, a playwright from the South now residing in West Hollywood, has two favorite subjects: homosexuality and the Bible Belt. Seeing as how the two haven't tended to mix very well in real life, there's an instant predefined conflict to be had, and by all accounts, Shore deals with this conflict very effectively onstage, both with the play this film was based on and his current hit production Southern Baptist Sissies. What works on the stage, however, doesn't always translate to celluloid.
The setup is a time-tested premise most recently seen in the film Kingdom Come: Dysfunctional family members assemble for a small-town funeral. The family matriarch has died as a result of tripping over the wooden legs of dull-witted local G.W. (played by Beau Bridges, the man with whom she was having an illicit affair). Daughters LaVonda (Ann Walker) and Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia) arrive to mourn at the house of their Aunt Sissy (Beth Grant), then fiercely argue over whether or not their mother should be buried in her favorite mink stole--Latrelle's argument against it being that it's summer, and no one wears mink in summer.
Meanwhile, there are other issues at play. LaVonda's best friend is Noleta (Burke), the wife of the cheating G.W., and there's a delicate balance there between comforting the distraught wife and allowing her to besmirch the name of a dead parent. The late mom also has one more child, Earl (Leslie Jordan, a veteran of Shores' stage productions), known to all as Brother Boy, who was locked up in a mental institution 20 years earlier for being gay and a drag queen, after confessing his attraction to best friend Wardell (Newell Alexander). And Latrelle also has a gay son, an actor who lives out in L.A. and bounces around from therapist to therapist trying to be accepted for who he is. Latrelle remains in denial on this subject, assuming he's only playing gay roles onstage as a form of rebellion (citing Tom Hanks, she tells him, "If you're gonna play homosexual, don't waste it on theater, win an Academy Award!").
The Southern touches are the film's biggest strength: Shores knows all too well the world of air conditioners, ice tea, poofy female hair and pointless anecdotes. Sadly, it's not even a stretch to imagine Brother Boy getting locked away for being gay 20 years ago. What is a bit of a stretch is his therapist (Rosemary Alexander), who, hoping to write a book by "deprogramming" her middle-aged Tammy Wynette-wannabe patient, resorts to extremely unprofessional behavior that would get anyone in her field suspended, at one point baring her breasts and demanding sexual attention. The MVP award of Sordid Lives goes not to Burke or Newton-John but to Beth Grant, an actress late into middle age who, according to the press kit, is "best known" as Helen, the exploding bus passenger in Speed. Here, she captures the archetypal single Southern aunt to a tee, gossiping endlessly on the phone, constantly offering to feed people and snapping a rubber band on her wrist every time she craves a cigarette ("behavior modi-something-or-other").
Shores deserves a lot of credit for making good use of actresses much of Hollywood probably labels as over-the-hill, but his directorial and screenwriting abilities still leave much to be desired. Sordid Lives feels like a play in perhaps the least successful way: It's composed of long scenes that are mostly dialogue, with transition action imagined or implied only. Couldn't we go outside for at least one scene? Shores intersplices long scenes together in the apparent hope of making them seem shorter that way, but he doesn't pull it off: You're left wishing he'd simply stay with the scene he just cut away from. When LaVonda and Noleta suddenly decide, about two-thirds of the way through the story, to become Thelma and Louise, it comes out of nowhere, as do their subsequent madcap antics. On the stage, this might have been a neat trick to shock the audience. On-screen, it elicits a big "huh?"
Shores also doesn't seem to know whose story he's telling. The movie begins with Latrelle's gay son Ty (Kirk Geiger) confessing all, but his tale is mostly irrelevant to the funeral happenings, even though we keep cutting back to his therapy escapades in L.A. Brother Boy is the most captivating, comedic and pathos-laden character (many kudos to Jordan), but trapped in an institution he can't exactly be our main protagonist. Latrelle seems the best candidate, as her emotional epiphany is really the climax of the piece, but since she's been relegated to the sidelines for the first half, she doesn't have the impact she should. Old pros Bridges and Newton-John are just fine, but minor players in the tale.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.