Life is a journey. At least, that’s the message Jolene seems to be trying to get across; unfortunately, it misses the mark.
Directed by Dan Ireland, Jolene is based on the Jolene: A Life by novelist E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, The March). The film follows the adventures of Jolene (Jessica Chastain) on her 10-year journey across America in pursuit of love and happiness.
The film explores the relationships and tumultuous events of her life on the road. Over the course of the movie, Jolene is repeatedly beset by adversity, overcoming one challenge only to be faced with another hardship shortly there after. Her journey is filled with lovers, engagements, weddings and deaths. The film leaves the viewer wondering if things can get any worse for this poor woman.
The movie’s structure is heavily episodic, with each event involving a different set of characters, relationships and situations.
The audience first meets Jolene when she is 15 years old. The beautiful redhead marries the genuine Mickey (Zeb Newman), a man deeply in love with her. The two move in with Mickey’s Aunt Kay (Theresa Russell) and Uncle Phil (Dermot Mulroney).
Family life proves difficult for Jolene to fit into. Uncle Phil quickly becomes attracted to Jolene. and the two begin a steamy relationship behind Mickey’s back before they are discovered and she is thrown out of the house.
Jolene is sent to a juvenile detention center, where she begins a relationship with lesbian prison guard, Cindy (Frances Fisher). Cindy helps her escape with the hope that the two will have a committed relationship outside jail confines.
Jolene becomes bored with their relationship and moves to Phoenix where she becomes a roller-skating waitress at a hamburger stand. There she meets and marries the drug-dealing, tattoo parlor owner Coco Leger (Rupert Friend). The relationship quickly ends in heartbreak and Jolene moves on to another man.
The next chapter of Jolene’s life takes place in Vegas where she meets rich mobster Sal Fontaine (Chazz Palminteri), who provides her with anything she wants. This is just the latest in the long string of relationships, and by this point, the film’s tedious and repetitive format begins to wear on the audience.
All of Jolene’s relationships are similar. Her lovers are entranced by her beauty and convince her that they can provide for her. And although the downfall of each relationship is different, it feels as if the audience has seen this all before.
Where the film does not grow predictable is in the suffering Jolene goes through. It continues to surprise throughout its duration; just as you think things can’t get any more depressing and strange, you are forced to witness yet another tragedy in Jolene’s life. In a scene near the end of the film where she is on a date with one character, Jolene utters the words, “This is getting too strange,” which summarizes the entire film.
Although the plot was outlandish and melodramatic, this is not the only reason the film fails to capture the audience. It also fails to connect in making audience members sympathize with the eponymous lead.
Her marriages of convenience make her seem foolish. Jolene constantly gets herself into situations with men that can only lead to terrible consequences and her poor judgment gets her mixed up in situations that just lead to more grief.
Through her narration she reveals that she doesn’t really love the men she’s involved with, yet she continues to pursue relationships with them.
It is difficult to sympathize with a character who knowingly gets herself into such outlandishly pitiable situations. If Ireland had shown that Jolene falls prey to these men and women through no fault of her own, her story would evoke a more compassionate response.
The only moment that sparks a sense of sympathy comes when Jolene is 25 and working in Hollywood. Her appearance has changed drastically, making her seem much older and wiser than when we first met her.
This scene is a glimpse of her new life as “just another day in the office.” There is a moment where she looks down at her drawings, all of things from her past. This brief moment resonates well with the audience, evoking a feeling of nostalgia. This reflective scene stands out as one of the few moments in the film where the plot threads seem connected and not merely episodic.
Other than this contemplative scene, the film as a whole is disappointing. Parts of the film were uncomfortable to watch and make you squirm in your seat and the implausible plot twists didn’t help.
Jolene tries to be a kind of character epic, showing one woman’s growth from her teenage years to adulthood. Unfortunately, it devolves into a sadistic film, torturing both its titular character and the audience, as the repetition and aimless meandering wear down even the most invested of viewers.