SXSW Film Review; Pic Stars Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale – Deadline
“We need more Dollys in the world,” is the message of this raucous but hugely enjoyable comedy, which, at the same time, reminds us that there is—and can only be—one Dolly Parton. The 76-year-old country legend is having quite a moment at SXSW this year, arriving at the festival with a concert to promote her new album (and novel) Run, Rose, Run and her online NFT project Dollyverse, while riding a wave of public goodwill after her philanthropic support of the Covid vaccine with a $1 million donation.
Surprisingly, despite its subject’s bona fides as an all-time American icon, Seriously Red hails from Australia, the country that gave us Strictly Ballroom (1992) and The Sapphires (2012). The residual influence of both films can be felt here, but the template has to be P.J. Hogan’s seminal Muriel’s Wedding, which made a star of Toni Collette in 1994. Directed by Gracie Otto, sister of actress Miranda and a prolific director of docs, Seriously Red could work similar wonders for star/writer Krew Boylan, whose anarchic screen presence recalls Grease-era Stockard Channing and a younger Catherine O’Hara.
Boylan plays Raylene ‘Red’ Delaney, a chaotic redhead and Dolly Parton fan who works for a real-estate company as an evaluator, alongside her childhood friend Francis (Thomas Campbell). At the office party—where she takes the invitation to “dress up” a little too literally by arriving in a blonde wig and a rhinestone-studded outfit—she performs a knockout version of Parton’s anthemic “9 To 5,” catches the eye of the evening’s Elvis-lookalike host, and meets Teeth (Celeste Barber), who road-manages for a company specializing in celebrity impersonators. Through Teeth, she meets the enigmatic big boss Wilson (Bobby Cannavale), himself a former Neil Diamond tribute act, and sets her sights on partnering as Dolly with Kenny (Daniel Webber), a method-acting Kenny Rogers clone who lives his idol’s life 24/7—and expects Red to do so too.
Like Muriel’s Wedding it’s both an Ugly Duckling story and a cautionary tale about getting what you wish for, and once you’ve got a handle on that, it’s easy to see what’s coming next as Red starts to feel more comfortable in her skin and the story enters into familiar romcom territory. Thankfully, Otto’s film has more than that to offer, and it’s the incidental details that will likely make this a cult favorite: on her journey, Red visits The Copy Club, an underground speakeasy with Fight Club-style secrecy rules where Abba lookalikes rub shoulders with a Freddie Mercury wannabe, an uncanny Elton John doppelganger and an impressively energetic plus-size Barbra Streisand.
Such opportunities for camp are taken at every turn, and though the film is definitely gay-friendly (a cameo by flamboyantly cheesy Australian cabaret artiste Bob Downe at The Copy Club testifies to that), the comedy is broad enough to work for audiences drawn by the promise of the music alone, mostly Dolly classics with a side order of kitsch. That said, Dolly’s heartland fanbase might not take too kindly to the film’s saltier scenes, like Red’s dressing-down at work when her boss, on firing her, describes her as “the lovechild of Mick Hucknall and Ronald McDonald—if they banged”. Similarly, the Neil Diamond faithful might not appreciate the affectionate irreverence dished out to the singer, which culminates in a truly unexpected laugh-out-loud moment—a kind of comedic jump-scare—when the deadpan Cannavale bursts into an earnest rendition of “I Am … I Said” (“Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of bein’ a king…?”).
Otto’s film, her first narrative feature, would have fit seamlessly into this year’s Sundance, where it would have sat easily in a World Dramatic slot and perhaps even worked as an offbeat Midnight title. SXSW, though, is a good platform for it, given the festival’s musical roots. Indeed, roots play an important part in Seriously Red, notably when our heroine begins to realize that in order to know where you’re going, you must first know where you’re from, and that to compete with the real Dolly Parton, you need to bring your own style and personality—not just “a blonde wig and a bra full of socks”.