The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas April 7, 2016
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas bears the title of a screwy sex comedy but has all the guts of a local theatrical production of Hairspray. It’s thunderous to a fault, but instead of being the subversive musical it might have been in different hands, it is mostly paltry, overly sentimental and not as satirically minded as we would like it to be. It touches upon the manias of the television industry and the knee-jerking values of small-town ideologies, but skims over parodical possibility for a romance that doesn’t quite click.
The film stars Burt Reynolds, who is on autopilot, as the Texas sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, whose smartass demeanor and smiley good looks have made him a quasi-celebrity in his small town. The job doesn’t entail much, his hometown of Gilbert being teensy and well-mannered, and so he’s generally relaxed in his profession. A shining example comes in the form of his on-off affair with Miss Mona (Dolly Parton), the madam of the town’s renowned brothel, The Chicken Ranch.
Though many of the city’s residents don’t wholeheartedly approve of Mona’s business, it is, regardless of its moral standards, as much a part of the area’s culture as a fried chicken dinner. So things are astronomically catapulted into trouble when TV personality Melvin P. Thorpe (a caricatured Dom DeLuise) rides into Gilbert to film a special. What most assume to be a novel attempt to capture Southern life depletes vastly after he reveals, during a live taping, that the town is actually famous for its whorehouse. Predictably, this announcement causes an uproar, both with the public and with Thorpe himself, who takes it upon himself to get the joint shut down immediately.
But because it is relatively tame and relatively uninterested in taking risks, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas sees the romance between Dodd and Mona as the most indispensable feature of the film, the rest fuel to add to the lame rompiness of it all. I suppose such a characteristic would be acceptable if we actually cared about the relationship on display, but Reynolds and Parton, despite joyous sex appeal on their respective parts (Parton’s cleavage is the movie’s most memorable image, as noted by Roger Ebert), have thin chemistry. They have the right lines, the right charisma, and the right idea of a film to serve their talents to — and yet nothing ever really comes together with cogency. Parton has a beautiful voice and great allure as an actress, but the musical sequences that either spotlight her or travel elsewhere (spread out unfittingly sparingly) are forgettable, though I won’t suggest they don’t do their damnedest to stay energetic and poppy.
Somewhere beneath The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’s diluted ideas lies a beamingly fun film, one with more of an emphasis on the satirical elements in place and one that tries to be wild instead of oddly domesticated. Maybe it would also know how to find the invisible electricity between Reynolds and Parton, and maybe it would still boot Charles Durning’s fictional Governor to the status of being the best thing about the film with a little less desperation and a little more supplementation. It isn’t bad per se, but see if you really care about what’s going on and then we’ll talk. C