"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," lumbering onto several area screens today, stands little chance of being mistaken for a stylish, or even marginally respectable, movie musical.
However, advance reports of its commercial liabilities were obviously exaggerated. Crummy as it is, "Whorehouse" figures to get by if enough folks are in the mood to indulge a fitfully entertaining song-and-dance fiasco for the sake of painfully miscast and mismatched favorite performers like Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, the prospect of some smutty repartee and nekkid chorus girls, the occasional highlight (notably, Charles Durning's solo "Sidestep" as the evasive governor) or nifty (for example, Durning telling the press, "It behooves both the Jews and the A-rabs to settle their differences in a Christian manner"), the idle curiosity of seeing what kind of show a $26 million budget can buy.
Director Colin Higgins has somehow lost the inexplicable Midas Touch that has sustained his career, from the time of "Harold and Maude" and "The Silver Streak." Higgins remains such a slug behind the camera and the movieola that "Whorehouse" keeps threatening to die on you. Moreover, there are moments when the costars might be spared considerable embarrassment if someone would just pull the plug. Sheriff Ed Earl and brothel proprietor Miss Mona's first encounter as secret lovers is especially painful, since it hinges on a facetiously kinky afternoon in the sack, with Parton strutting around in a new scanty while urging a reluctant Reynolds to trade his boxer shorts for a bikini brief. Perhaps overcompensating for this naughty-naughty humiliation, Parton and Reynolds spend the rest of the movie trading wistfully banal endearments. It's as if they'd aged prematurely into rocking chair roles. There was far more erotic charge in the air when Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn jollied each other in "On Golden Pond."
Given this fundamental lack of romantic rapport or zest between naturally good-humored performers, it's a miracle that "Whorehouse" escapes a calamitous conk-out. There's always something incidentally diverting that happens along and administers artificial respiration. It may be a very fleeting sort of funny touch, like the sight of Miss Mona's madly decorative golden handbag, which has a saddle carved upon it, or the suit worn by Raleigh Bond as the mayor--a triumph of shininess that reveals costume designer Theodora Van Runkle in a droll mood. It may be speculation about matters irrelevant to the trivial plot, like the difficulties a woman as diminutive as Dolly Parton must encounter trying to navigate with that astonishing, prowlike bosom.
Or it may be disbelief at spectacles as ostentatiously ludicrous as the dance numbers involving chorus boys pretending to be victorious members of the Texas A&M football team.
Sometimes the artificial respiration even derives from elements that can be considered purposefully and expertly amusing, like the performances of Durning as the governor and Dom DeLuise as the foppish media troublemaker, Melvin Thorpe, whose self-promoting crusade against the brothel, a supposedly benign and useful institution in mythical Lanville County, Tex., for generations, leads to its closing and a potentially grievous misunderstanding between the sheriff and Mona. Melvin's outrageous wardrobe is also the occasion for a choice witticism entrusted to a bit player: "Who's the fellow in the trick britches?" Although it's come a long, dubiously stylized way from the original Larry L. King story that inspired the show, "Whorehouse" seems to preserve a bit of authentic regional humor in remarks like that.
Reynolds reportedly signed on when made an offer he couldn't refuse: $3 million. Indeed, he was quoted as saying that he considered it downright sinful to refuse such a figure. I hope the fee was well invested, because Reynolds hasn't looked this uncomfortable on the screen for several years.
You'd also think that Reynolds and Parton might hit it off in a romantic comedy framework, but "Whorehouse" would prove you wrong with a knee-slappin' vengeance. You're obliged to take your fun where you can find it during this coyly coarse-minded, near-wreck of a musical, and there's precious little to be found watching the costars gather moss in each other's uneasy company.