The fragrant aroma of magnolias is undercut by the distinct smell of mothballs throughout “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,” an admirably earnest but curiously flat attempt to film a long-unproduced scenario by Tennessee Williams. Although Williams penned the original script specifically for the screen decades ago, the final product comes across as ploddingly stagebound under the sympathetic but literal-minded direction of actress-turned-helmer Jodie Markell. Resembling nothing so much as a lesser “American Playhouse” telepic of the mid-1980s, the indie drama likely will be consigned to pubcast and cable venues.
Many devotees of Williams’ finest works may be tempted to interpret “Teardrop Diamond” as the playwright’s fanciful attempt to match up the brooding, studly Brick of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with a younger, marginally more stable Blanche DuBois (“A Streetcar Named Desire”).
In 1920s Mississippi, self-dramatizing, desperately free-spirited Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard) behaves just scandalously enough to make it difficult, but not impossible, to be accepted in the ever-so-proper world of debutante balls and high-society gatherings. In need of an escort for the most important parties of the season, she hires Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), an employee of the company store at her father’s plantation, to don a tuxedo and do the honors.
Despite Jimmy’s arm’s-length diffidence, Fisher soon falls for the handsome fellow. But when she loses a valuable teardrop diamond earring at a party where Jimmy is reunited with a former flame (Jessica Collins), the poor little rich girl — driven more by sexual jealousy than snobbery-fueled suspicion — makes her cash-strapped hunk feel like Prime Suspect No. 1.
“Teardrop Diamond” finds Williams skirting painfully close to self-parody, advancing his none-too-compelling Southern Gothic plot with thinly drawn archetypes and flights of flowery dialogue. Defining attributes are announced rather than dramatized (“Practical considerations seem to run in my blood — as well as sensual ones”). And what’s meant to sound like playful bandying comes off as self-conscious faux poetry (“You’re the cynosure of all the female eyes of the party”). More than once, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine the same lines spoken by Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman in a variety-show skit.
Howard tries too hard, and Evans underplays too much. Ellen Burstyn has a few affecting moments as an aged Southern belle incapacitated by stroke, who sees in Fisher a kindred spirit and, possibly, a co-conspirator. But Ann-Margret is wasted in the insubstantial role of Fisher’s disapproving grand-aunt.
Bland production values suggest the cinematic equivalent of a smalltown community theater production.