In Praise of Bolder Women: Laura Dern in Joyce Chopra’s SMOOTH TALK

Or, how to really screw up adapting a classic Joyce Carol Oates short story and yet almost pull it off, because, you know, Laura Dern

By James Kenney

SMOOTH TALK, which is really quite bad save Laura Dern, will play better if one doesn’t know the Joyce Carol Oates classic, oft-anthologized short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” which the film (mostly) faithfully recreates for a protracted sequence about an hour and a quarter into its running time.  The story, about a girl, Connie, who sexually develops before she emotionally matures, leading to a disturbing confrontation with a man she is not ready for emotionally or physically, is allegorical, with their behaviors in their lengthy psychological skirmish  almost dreamlike.  Is she having a nightmare driven by hormones and a fleeting glimpse earlier in the story of an older Lothario who made a comment to her?  Is the event actually happening, with the man impossibly knowing things about her personal life and Connie perhaps sleepwalking, doing nothing to alter her fate at his hand (such as simply locking the door or grabbing a knife when she’s in the kitchen while he’s still loitering outside at the screen door)?  Is its open ending signifying a girl heading toward her doom (one inspiration for the story was “the Pied Piper of Tuscon,” a killer of young women in Arizona), or a figurative treatise on innocence lost before the loser is ready (another influence  was Bob Dylan’s “Its All Over Now Baby Blue” which, like lots of Dylan, is beautifully obscure but indicates a girl forced from innocence to experience before she’s ready)?  The very hopelessness of a reader fully cracking Oates’ story is one reason it’s an inexorable classic.


Well, SMOOTH TALK is an honorable enough attempt to flesh out the short story to feature film length, directed by a filmmaker of some note, Joyce Chopra; adapted by an author with credits, Tom Cole; and starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams.  Dern carries the film on her shoulders, showing the confusion, embarrassment, anger, curiosity, craving and essential normality of a girl whose body is transmitting signals out to her and others that she’s not emotionally able to control, and who receives no hope from a shrill mother (Mary Kay Place) whose relationship with her is thorny.  The film is basically well-played for most of its running time and takes its protagonist and her situation seriously.


And it’s dreadful.

The film feels like a cluster of mismatched parts, starting with the film’s indeterminate time-period.  Shot in the mid-1980s, with the obligatory synthesizer doodlings on the soundtrack and 80s fashions, it often feels like something located in the mid 50s or 60s, chiefly in the key sequence between Williams and Dern that features an ominous silent supporting character with a transistor radio after historic setting would indicate it should be updated to a Sony Walkman.  That the film then also largely features 1970s bourgeois James Taylor songs such as “Handy Man” only empowers the feeling of schizophrenic dissociation that doesn’t feel like style or artistic choice but, with an additional thirty years distance, just feels clumsy.


The showdown between Dern and Williams, the movie’s whole reason for being, is a catastrophe, with Williams preening and fidgeting like he wasn’t sure what the highly stylized character was about, and Chopra had no answers.  Dern, of course, was a lanky, striking, formidable young actress, and while, of course, a woman of any size and shape can be sexually assaulted or manipulated, Dern’s efforts to play paralyzed and bamboozled by Williams’s overaged drip (he looks like a HAPPY DAYS castoff) are exasperating and unconvincing.  No more so than when Connie is walking towards Williams’s car, having given into his pressures to go off with him so that he won’t hurt her family: he makes a comment to her (a faithful quote from Oates’ story) and she replies rather brusquely, with attitude (her comment is a new addition, not authored by Oates). If Connie’s capable of being a wise-ass to this predator, why did her behavior for the entirety of the scene before this shift between giggling simp and petrified victim?


Oates’s short story may be about rape, murder and certainly is about ugly sexual exploitation.  The film flattens out the mystery but doesn’t reconcile the weirdness of Oates’s nightmare vision: the scene’s second, mute, creepy man with the transistor radio glued to his ear comes off frankly absurd in the film version, and Chopra cops out of the story’s darker insinuations of gang rape anyway, as Williams’s character decides not to bring the second man along, unlike in the original.


SMOOTH TALK, with an unlikely happy ending, turns Oates’s suffocating nightmare of vulnerability into a sequence where Connie, after surviving the experience with few seeming scars, finds the ability to reconcile with her estranged family at the end of the day!  It’s as if the experience was basically a good life lesson for her.

The film feels rather incompetent throughout this whole sequence and the ensuing climax and resolution, and I don’t think anyone with a passing knowledge of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” could find SMOOTH TALK satisfactory other than as a curio. That being said, Dern, a skillful, distinctive actress, is as watchable as ever here, halfway between her breakthrough performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s MASK and her biggest lead in David Lynch’s WILD AT HEART, and those with an unrealistic need for happy endings will get their wish with SMOOTH TALK; it certainly gives poor Connie more reason for hope than the Oates story ever did.  Criterion just released the film on Blu-ray and DVD, and Dern fans will certainly want to add it to their collection.Oates fans may not want to add it to their collection.

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