Siskel and Ebert At the Movies…
Dolly Parton is a versatile lady, and we all know how she likes dipping her big toe into Hollywood. She doesn’t do a ton of acting, and most of her film credits are now behind the scenes, but she starred in some classics. One of her last movie appearances was in 1992’s Straight Talk, in which she plays a small town transplant who suddenly finds herself with a radio career.
I’ve had this Blu-ray in my film collection for who knows how long, but for some reason I’ve never watched it, so I’m coming at it with fresh eyes. Since the idea of Sally’s blogathon is to pay tribute to Siskel and Ebert, rest their souls, I purposely didn’t check to see what their thoughts were until after I watched it. Did we agree? Read on and find out…
Shirlee (Dolly Parton) is a dance instructor who seems more interested in counseling her clients than teaching them to dance. Her boss gets tired of it and decides to fire her. Shirlee’s boyfriend, Steve (Michael Madsen) is a scrub who’s really not interested when Shirlee floats the idea of moving to Chicago, so while he’s out having drinks she leaves him and goes by herself.
She’s barely arrived in Chicago when she stops at the river to make a wish, and unfortunately one of the twenties in her purse flies out. Shirlee goes to great lengths to get it back, sticking bubble gum on her heel to catch the wayward Andrew Jackson. However, as fate and plot would have it, Jack (James Woods) thinks she’s committing suicide and rushes to save her. Shirlee politely brushes it off and checks into a tiny furnished apartment with a crooked door.
Shirlee needs a job, so she starts pounding the pavement and marking up the want ads with red nail polish. She tries everything from being a typist to what she thinks is a dancing job (yeah, no, they want a stripper). The only thing she really excels at is giving advice, and it starts when she meets a young woman, Janice (Teri Hatcher) at a lunch counter. Janice pours out her sad tale of how her boyfriend has no time for her because he’s always working. Shirlee tells her maybe she should stop waiting and get out and do something.
Funnily enough, the man in question shows up, and it’s Mr. Knight In Shining Armor, Jack. He’s very cocky until Janice takes him down a peg or five before storming out.
Shirlee finally lands herself a secretarial job at a radio station, WNDY, and once she gets the hang of the phones, things seem to be going well. Especially when she tries to find a cup of coffee and the station engineers mistake her for the station’s new advice show host. They won’t take no for an answer, and Shirlee finds herself giving advice to the lovelorn.
Mr. Perlman (Philip Bosco) the owner of the station, is livid when he finds out that Shirlee stood in for the real host, who’s a PhD and supposedly qualified for the job. That all changes, however, when the letters, calls, and telegrams start rolling in. People love Shirlee. Her producer, Alan (Griffin Dunne) gets right to work manufacturing an image of her for the public, and he’s totes cool with promoting her as a doctor. Shirlee has misgivings, but goes along with it, and she’s an overnight sensation with a fancy pink Mercedes to match.
Jack, on the other hand, is floundering as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. His editor wants him to get off his keister and make something of himself. So Jack proposes finding out the real background of Chicago’s newest advice guru. It’s perfect, he says. She doesn’t know I’m a reporter, he says.
The search doesn’t take much digging. Jack travels down to Shirlee’s old hometown of Flat River and meets Steve in a bar. How he found out where she lived we don’t know. Anyway, Steve is bent out of shape because Shirlee took his bowling bag when she left him. Instead of leaking his findings to the press, Jack goes back to Chicago, where he half-heartedly stalks Shirlee, finally talking his way into a fundraiser and asking her out.
Shirlee and Jack go out, sparks fly, and it all looks like smooth sailing. Or is it? Like any charade, the gig will be up sooner or later. And Steve may or may not slime his way to Shirlee’s swanky Chicago apartment looking for his lost bowling bag.
This movie is inextricably linked to the 90s. The clothes, the jokes, the cigarette machine in the diner. The tech. Oh, and the hair. I couldn’t help but picture all the boxes and boxes of hairspray the hairdressers must have used for Straight Talk, because no one’s hair gets messed up, ever.
Let’s not forget the music, either. I had to laugh whenever Shirlee and Jack got romantic, because every time the clarinet riffs would swell. I half-expected Kenny G to appear and flip his luxuriant hair around. Other than that, the film doesn’t have much of a score. It’s punctuated by Dolly Parton’s own music as if she’s narrating the story, which she is because vehicle. In a comedy as light as this one it only serves as a reminder of what her biggest strength is. I kept hoping she’d get a job as a singer so we could see her perform.
As an actress, though, Parton’s pretty competent. Her facial expressions look believable and her performance is natural, but in this movie I never quite forgot I was looking at Dolly Parton. Straight Talk doesn’t forget this, either, which is why during Jack and Shirlee’s off-camera roll in the hay, we hear him say, “Holy moly,” after Shirlee’s bra lands in the doorway.
Dolly’s chemistry with James Woods is pretty fun, but neither of them have much to do, and it really seems like he as the competent actor is being a good sport. Same thing with Teri Hatcher, who’s only in one scene but still gets billing. It would have made for a more interesting story if they could have further worked her character into the movie, maybe with a love triangle kind of scenario. Or at the very least, show how she’s moved on from Jack and fill out both characters.
Straight Talk is a TV movie with a Hollywood budget. It isn’t a daring film that takes chances and gives basically nothing in terms of substance. It’s hokey. The fighters-turned-lovers storyline has been done so many times it can be really stale. Still, it’s charmingly frothy and goes quickly. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again when I’ve had a chance to forget how predictable it is.
And what did our two critics think? Well…Ebert gave it two stars in his Chicago Sun-Times review because, like me, he thought the film was way too shallow, and on the April 4, 1992 episode of At the Movies he gave it a thumbs-down. Siskel gave it a thumbs-up, however, but probably because the movies reviewed in that particular episode were all pretty dumb, his reasons are lost due to lack of access. Maybe Tribune man Siskel enjoyed seeing his rival’s paper looking clumsy, who knows.
Of the three of us, I doubt anyone really liked or disliked Straight Talk. It just is. For my part, I prefer Dolly in Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5. Those movies allowed her to flex her acting muscles a bit more without having to wrestle with her own formidable shadow. Still, Dolly’s a fun lady and an immensely respected entertainer, and it’s always cool seeing her.
For more of the great Siskel and Ebert, please see Sally at 18 Cinema Lane. Thanks very much for hosting, Sally–this was a great idea! Thanks for reading, all, and see you next time…