Virginia - Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris
Virginia - Single mother Virginia (Jennifer Connelly) is the mentally unhinged lover of married sheriff Dick Tipton (Ed Harris) © 2012 Andy Terzes/Tick Tock Studios

There’s a difference between a dark comedy and a dismal one, and Virginia unfortunately is more bleak than offbeat. Granted, it’s tough to get even nervous laughs when your lead character is an adulterous schizophrenic jobless chain-smoker with lung cancer, even when she does things like wearing a gorilla mask to rob a bank. But the movie ends up being so miserable it may as well have been made as a full-on depressing drama, without any uncomfortably silly asides.

Jennifer Connelly, who won the Best Actress Oscar for playing a schizophrenic’s wife in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, gets her own chance to talk to herself and act unbalanced as the title character here. Until losing her job because of medical issues, Virginia is a shuttle driver at a Virginia Beach amusement-park pier owned by bitchily gay cross-dresser Max (Toby Jones, who is superb at pitching a snit). She’s also the longtime girlfriend of married-with-children Sheriff Dick Tipton (square-jawed Ed Harris), a secretly kinky hypocrite running for the state senate on a family values platform.

Conservatives who regard Hollywood as a godless Gomorrah of liberal bias are likely to get in a froth over the fact that Tipton also happens to be a practicing Mormon, like a certain 2012 Republican presidential candidate.

There are references to his faith’s “magic underwear,” the multiple-wives issue and the notion of heaven as a place where Tipton can hook up with Virginia if she keeps quiet about their affair on Earth. With this movie and the success of the recent Broadway farce The Book of Mormon, followers of Joseph Smith may be feeling a bit put-upon.

Connelly’s last movie was 2011’s Salvation Boulevard, another religion-ridiculing comedy, in which she played a delusional true believer. But while Virginia may be crazy, she’s smart enough to see through deceitful Dick.

That’s more than can be said for Dick’s unquestioningly naive wife Roseanna (played by Harris’ real-life wife Amy Madigan), who is not even suspicious when unmarked packages to him are vibrating when they arrive in the mail.

Virginia‘s other character

The movie’s other main character is single-mom Virginia’s understandably depressed and frustrated teenage son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson, who does a good job of underplaying the part). Illegitimate Emmett thinks Dick may be his father. That would be awkward, considering Emmett’s girlfriend is Dick’s devout daughter Jessie (Emma Roberts).

Virginia was written by first-time feature director Dustin Lance Black, winner of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 2008’s Milk. Anyone who likes flipping to the last chapter of a book to read the ending first may enjoy the fact that Virginia is one of those annoying movies that begins with its climax and is told almost entirely in flashback.

The movie has its moments, and the actors are uniformly good at making their odd characters at least moderately interesting. But there’s just barely enough here to make a visit to Virginia worth the trip.

[Rating: 2 stars]

Virginia has its US and Canada theatrical release on Friday May 18.

Virginia - Harrison Gilbertson
Virginia – Virginia’s troubled son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) tries to cope with his mentally ill mother © 2012 Andy Terzes/Tick Tock Studios

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.