Dolly Parton is so good-hearted and beams with such amiability and country-morning charm that the temptation to sit back, shut up and simply bask in her screen presence is nearly overwhelming.
"Straight Talk" attempts to feed off that blast of sheer sweetness and it's almost enough. Parton plays a hard-luck working gal up from Arkansas where her life has been one long country-western song. In Chicago, by the sorts of fluky accidents that seem to happen only in movies, she finds herself parked behind a talk radio microphone, billed as "Dr. Shirley." There, her common sense and moral clarity make her the queen of the airwaves -- for a while. But soon she's undone, when it is revealed that her doctorate came from the University of Life, class of 1950-1992.
Of course the classic undertones of the piece aren't meant to be subtle and neither is the pumpkin she sits on in the movie's poster: This is Cinderella, just as surely as Mike Nichols' "Working Girl" was Cinderella. Dolly's spin as a talk show host is her enchanted evening when a fairy godmother lets her go to the ball; her come-down is the stroke of midnight, and her recovery is the magic slipper. But as Prince Charming . . . James Woods?
Somebody had a bad case of bibbity-bobbity-boo in the head. The idea, I suppose, was to contrast Parton's self-parodying and slow-slurping rural rhythms with his edgy urban quickness and fervor. It didn't work in "Rhinestone" with Sylvester Stallone and it doesn't work here with Woods, estimable though he is.
Woods is cast as a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who meets Parton by cute accident in the early going and then tumbles to the fact that she may not be what her radio station says she is. Thus he begins an "investigation" in the guise of a courtship that's destined to bring her down, even as he's falling in love with her. His moral fulcrum is the decision whether or not to blow the whistle on her.
Part of the problem is that when Woods is paid to be nice, he's not very interesting. He's such a dynamic force on screen that to mill him down to bourgeoise acceptability simply destroys the point of having him there in the first place.
And the fact is that other than Parton's bonhomie, the movie doesn't have much to offer. I'd rather listen to her belt out "Jolene" from the amphitheater at Dollyland than navigate her way between the multitude of cliches this script offers up.
# 'Straight Talk'
Starring Dolly Parton and James Woods.
Directed by Barnet Kellman.
Released by Hollywood Pictures.