Smooth Talk (December 4/04)
Smooth Talk, based on a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, features a pair of fantastic performances from Laura Dern and Treat Williams - but it's impossible to ever become completely engrossed in the film, primarily due to an insurmountably overlong running time. This is particularly noticeable in the film's first hour, which encompassed all of three pages in Oates' story. Screenwriter Tom Cole attempts to compensate by fleshing out a few of the supporting characters, but it doesn't really work.
Dern stars as Connie, a rebellious teenager who doesn't get along all that well with her family - especially her overbearing mother, Katherine (Mary Kay Place). She spends most of her time with her friends Laura (Margaret Welsh) and Jill (Sara Inglis), and the three of them begin hanging out at a popular burger joint frequented mostly by older guys. It's there that Connie first encounters the mysterious Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), though she doesn't give him a second thought. But everything changes when he visits her one Sunday afternoon, knowing full well that her family is away at a barbecue.
Director Joyce Chopra clearly has no problem with allowing the story to unfold at an extraordinarily deliberate pace, using the film's first hour to establish Connie's tumultuous existence. Despite the less-than-riveting vibe, it's impossible to deny Dern's amazing performance. Smooth Talk marked the actress' first stab at a leading role, and Dern does an incredible job of stepping into Connie's shoes. The character is as complex and demanding as anything Dern has tackled subsequently, since Connie is at an age where her she doesn't quite know how to handle her emerging sexuality (not an easy thing to capture, but Dern pulls it off). Williams is equally effective as Arnold Friend, delivering a performance that suitably straddles the line between charisma and malevolence.
For the most part, Smooth Talk doesn't have a whole lot to do with Oates' short story - with the sole exception being the film's third act. The confrontation between Connie and Arnold essentially plays out exactly the same way it did in the source material, and it's here that the movie finally comes alive. The chemistry between Dern and Williams becomes palpable, and the film's shift from coming-of-age story to disturbing thriller isn't nearly as jarring as it could've been.