“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” So says legendary country and western pop icon and all-round wonderful human being Dolly Parton. The glittering rhinestone-studded star is not only one of the loveliest artists at work today, but also a conveyor belt when it comes to spitting out pithy bon mots that pop up on aspirational posters and Instagram feeds.
Or, as is the case with Under the Volcano director Gracie Otto’s debut fictional feature Seriously Red, as intertitles doing all the heavy lifting in a confused and scrappy Australian comedy with dramatic aspirations that never entirely pay off.
Credit where credit’s due, Parton herself signed off on the rights to use her music, and it is a sweet relief indeed when the real deal pops up on the soundtrack. Unfortunately, most of her numbers are crooned by A Place to Call Home star Krew Boylan, who has no discernible talent for singing, let alone for mimicking Parton’s trademark saucy drawl. Which somewhat hamstrings a film that posits Boylan’s character Red ditching her real estate job to become a Dolly impersonator.
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Now, the world is full of adorable hopefuls who dream of being just like their favourite star. There’d be plenty of scope for a sweetly silly film about someone trying and failing but learning to love themselves along the way. Which is the basic plot of Seriously Red, except that we’re meant to swallow that Red’s also really good at it. So much so that she gets signed by a lookalike agency run by a former Neil Diamond impersonator somewhat inexplicably played by Bobby Cannavale.
I still can’t believe an actor of his calibre wound up in this, but at least he nails the brief when called upon to belt out a Diamond banger in the film’s only yahoo moment musically (not including the real Dolly numbers).
Stretching credulity way beyond breaking point, Red even gets flown to international clubs for the big bucks, all while wearing terrible wigs and costumes that even the screenplay—poorly sketched out by first-time screenwriter Boylan—acknowledges makes her look like a drag queen. Sadly her performance also lacks the snappy humour.
Nothing seems to stick here. The film aches for teary emotional moments it never earns and forgets to work in laughs along the way despite the presence of comedian Celeste Barber, who plays a talent scout. Seriously Red does finds space to punch down on the death of Amy Winehouse in a nasty dig aimed at the drinking habits of one of the club’s many background “lookalikes”. You’d think a documentary maker like Otto would know better, considering the success of colleague Asif Kapadia’s film Amy.
Boylan isn’t up to either the comic or dramatic beats. The latter includes an unconvincing rift with her mother (Jean Kittson) for reasons the film never makes entirely clear, and a dependent relationship with Daniel Webber’s Kenny Rogers impersonator. There’s also a very confusing plot involving her lifelong friend Francis, played by Love My Way star Thomas Campbell. Boylan seemingly has no idea what to do with him.
But nowhere is the movie’s reasoning more unclear than in a scene involving Rose Byrne as an Elvis impersonator who winds up in bed with Red. How this plays out between them and what it means is so vague, even with a late-in-the-game flashback that feels like it’s grasping for pathos that’s just not there. Byrne, much like Cannavale, is totally wasted here. Sadly, she’d also lose out to Austin Butler when it comes to the best performance as the King in cinemas this month.
Shot in the sort of detail-blasting floodlighting that strips any possible kookiness from the 70s pastel suburbia production design, the film also looks very flat, which is just about the last thing you’d expect from a Parton tribute. Plenty of indies with tiny budgets manage to make the most of what they’ve got, but sadly Seriously Red feels like a first draft in search of a spotlight.
Fair play, it’s Boylan’s first screenplay and Otto’s first dramatic feature, but this one needed a nine-to-five rewrite to make it truly sing.