- causing or tending to cause disgust or aversion through excess: ‘a perfume of cloying sweetness.’
- Overly ingratiating or sentimental.
When a movie has characters with names such as Fleeta Mullins, Sweet Sue Tinsley, Miss Iva Lou Wade and Spec Broadwater, it’s practically inviting you to regard it as the cinematic equivalent of that overly huggy, incessantly needy relative who’s always showing up with baked goods and gossip, and thinks she’s the life of the party, when in fact everyone in the room is inventing excuses for an early exit the moment she arrives.
As you might have surmised, the intended charms of the down-home period piece/Southern comedy/romance/drama “Big Stone Gap” were utterly lost on me.
One imagines writer-director Adriana Trigiani, who grew up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, knew people similar to the characters in this story, and had the purest of intentions in bringing her own novel to the big screen. (The novel even spawned a series of sequels.) But I saw what I saw and I felt what I felt, and there was nary a scene in “Big Stone Gap” that didn’t feel obvious and manipulative and deep in the sentimental cornfield.
“Big Stone Gap” is set in the small-town Virginia of the 1970s, when an unmarried woman of about 40 was still called a “spinster,” a man who liked men kept that to himself, and everyone in town was all up in everyone else’s business.
Ashley Judd is the narrator and our guide to life in this cloistered community in the Appalachian Mountains. She plays one Ave Maria Mulligan, who runs the pharmacy, is involved in all sorts of local activities such as the theater and keeps herself busy with myriad hobbies and good deeds.
The town is filled with lovably eccentric characters, including Whoopi Goldberg’s chain-smoking, wisecracking, cynical but gold-hearted Fleeta Mullins; Patrick Wilson’s Jack MacChesney, a soap-opera handsome, guitar-playing coal miner; Jane Krakowski as Sweet Sue Tinsley, and Jenna Elfman as Iva Lou Wade, and it’s a toss-up as to which performance is more over-the-top and irritating.
Ave Maria lives up to her name. The woman’s a saint.
When snooty mean girls taunt Pearl Grimes (Erika Coleman), a kid from the other side of the tracks, Ave Maria gives Pearl a job and helps out Pearl’s family to the point where the Grimes family starts to feel as if they’ve won the lottery.
When mean, narrow-minded relatives of Ave Maria challenge her in front of half the town, Ave Maria puts them in their place in just the right tone.
When Ave Maria’s on-again, off-again beau has a big job opportunity in Chattanooga, she knows just what to say.
After a funeral scene that plays like nothing out of real life but something you’d expect in a movie such as this, Ave Maria learns a shocking secret about her family, which sets about a chain of events that come across as increasingly implausible and forced. We get weird detours, including a main character suffering a nervous breakdown seemingly out of nowhere and a visit from Elizabeth Taylor (accompanying then-husband John Warner on the campaign trail), which is played for laughs but comes across as a blatant rip-off of an ancient “Saturday Night Live” bit.
Judd does capable work. Goldberg quietly swipes scenes, reminding us she could act before she became best known for trading opinions on “The View.” They’re swimming against the tide.
By the time we get to the final, borderline ludicrous moments in “Big Stone Gap,” I wasn’t even surprised by the overwhelming sappiness of it all.
I was just relieved to reach the finish line.