Holly Hunter is one of those erstwhile Hollywood leading women — like Jill Clayburgh or Debra Winger — whose name provokes a certain wistfulness, because there’s no good reason why she stayed at the top such a short while. That is, none beyond the industry’s infamously short attention span toward most female stars, who generally get shunted to the B list at an age where almost any other career would just be getting established. Those who miss the spunky, rueful, heart-of-gold Hunter from her early signature films will find something of a return to that form in “Strange Weather,” though in a vehicle that doesn’t always serve her to best effect.
While Hunter’s character here does indeed feel like a flintier older version of the plucky scrabblers she once played, writer-director Katherine Dieckmann’s latest film doesn’t provide material remotely in the league of “Broadcast News,” “Raising Arizona” or even “Home for the Holidays.” This earnest but labored drama charts a grieving mother’s search over a few days’ time to explain her only child’s suicide years earlier. That’s a potent theme, but to support it, the film uses a mix of cliches — Southern, road pic, and parental-revenge — that create a holding-back-the-tears air that the movie never fully escapes. Worse, it makes Hunter seem like she’s recycling old performances into an inferior, misguided new receptacle; it’s like watching “Miss Firecracker” pour all her li’l-dynamo shtick into filigreeing the finer points of depression.
“You’re so tough and funny and so damn smart!” gushes Byrd (Carrie Coon) to best friend Darcy Baylor (Hunter) — as if both film and character haven’t already been hammering those points home for an hour. Everybody in the world, it seems, thinks self-described Mississippi “free spirit” Darcy is the cat’s meow, not least her local-bar-owning sexy grizzled ex-boyfriend (Kim Coates) who waits patiently for her to un-break-up with him. But she’s had little use for love, or life in general, since son Walker took his life seven years earlier. The reasons for that act have remained exasperatingly unclear, but now Darcy thinks she’s found a possible cause when she discovers that a rich twerp who was the boy’s college friend may have stolen Walker’s business plan for a restaurant. Kevin Jenkins (Turner Crumbley) now owns successful hot dog franchises that he promotes in smarmy TV commercials — ones that even borrow Walker’s childhood memories to add that “personal touch.”
With arm-twisting co-worker Byrd riding shotgun, Darcy fires up her old Ford truck, and sets off for Kevin’s corporate HQ in New Orleans. This is the kind of movie where despite the psychological urgency of our heroine’s quest, she insists on taking back roads so that we can savor every last drop of down-home Southern culture. Pit stops include a visit with Glenne Headly as an over-the-top old pal; and, of course, a shocking revelation or two must be shared between Darcy and Byrd before they reach the Big Easy.
Much of the goings on feel plain hokey, and the rather theatrical dialogue mixed with a couple of certified Big Speeches don’t help matters. Through it all, Darcy is sassy, wounded, and indomitable— a tailor-made role so tightly fitted to Hunter that it begins to feel like a straitjacket, one in which the actress (who now sports the almost alarmingly sinewy physique of the latter-day Madonna) thrashes about as if every emotion might be her last.
Hunter has proven herself a versatile as well as charismatic performer in such unexpected vehicles as “The Piano” (her Oscar winner), where she was just as expert at imbuing her character with silent restraint as with rambunctiousness. But this return to the seriocomic Southern comfort food style of the Beth Henley texts that first made her name — an idiom that Massachusetts-born Dieckmann does not inhabit convincingly — brings out her most obvious, crowd-pleasing smiling-through-tears instincts. It’s the kind of bravura turn that feels like an acting-class demonstration of “authenticity.”
With supporting parts (including Crumbley’s stock yuppie-scum) even more patly conceived, there’s not much beyond pretty scenery and forced “grittiness” to distract from the hollow histrionics at the heart of “Strange Weather,” whose clumsy signifiers include being set during a long, hot drought. There’s no free-at-last rain dance for Darcy, but just about every other lyrical cliche appears on cue.