Only two of the three women at the heart of Dumplin’, a new Netflix comedy about a trio of unconventional beauty-pageant contestants, have something to prove. Playing the plus-size teenage daughter of a pageant local legend, rising star Danielle Macdonald, who impressed in the underrated mother-daughter rap dramedy Patti Cake$, is eager to showcase not only her Everygirl appeal but her ability to redefine that mantle. As a never-home mom who’s seldom had her talents and hard work appreciated by her only child, Jennifer Aniston reminds us once again that, with the right roles, she can be far more than a tabloid fixation. But Dolly Parton—pop culture icon, country’s grand dame, and a hall-of-fame songwriter—can rest easy on a pile of laurels. So why does Dumplin’ sell Parton with the desperation of a fishmonger with three-day-old wares?
Consuming a lot of pop culture, as I do, has meant making peace with an endless stream of product placement in the vast majority of things I watch. But the Parton propaganda in Dumplin’ is so clumsily overdone that the sell becomes wearying. There’s certainly a case for a Dolly drinking game, or a streamable version of Dollywood, either of which Dumplin’ could be mistaken for. (Maybe best to keep her dinner-theater Stampede in Pigeon Forge, though.) From an early age, best friends Willowdean (Macdonald) and Ellen (Odeya Rush) bond over the Smoky Mountain Songbird. In fact, there seems to be little more to their friendship beyond quoting Dolly, singing along to her songs, or quizzing each other about Parton trivia. (The soundtrack combines new renditions of a couple of hits, like “Jolene” and “Here You Come Again,” with a slew of album cuts.) But we don’t really get a sense from Kristin Hahn’s script why these girls love Dolly, let alone a fresh take on Parton.
And yet this Dolly love is the most interesting element in Dumplin’, a movie so lifeless you’d have more fun guessing the Netflix niche group that the production is supposed to satisfy. (Gay-friendly red staters? Viewers with great taste in music but terrible taste in film? Those who like their movies full of female characters but want all those characters to have the depth of a tube of lipstick?) Which is a shame, because Dumplin’, an adaptation of Julie Murphy’s best-selling young adult novel of the same name, is built on a solid foundation, complete with a difficult, grief-streaked mother-daughter relationship at its core, a resonant conflict pitting rah-rah body positivity against scary reality, and a crowd-pleasing finale bringing together drag and pageant queens. There should be enough sass and glitter to go around, but veteran director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal, Step Up, 27 Dresses) is frustratingly stingy with spectacle—an odd approach to take when helming a movie about drag (!) and beauty pageants (!). Somewhere, a teased wig is itchy for a slap fight.
Macdonald doesn’t significantly elevate the paltry material she’s given, but Aniston adds layers of meaning and history to her even-scanter part. (She never manages to pass for a Texan belle, though, and her character seems way too reasonable to torture her daughter for years with the hated titular nickname.) Meanwhile, RuPaul’s Drag Race fan favorite Ginger Minj, playing one of Willowdean’s several drag coaches for the pageant, never gets the opportunity to steal scenes the way fellow alum Willam Belli does in A Star is Born. “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world,” croons Willowdean, but so ruthlessly expository are the film’s scenes that none of the gems it brings together get to shine.
At the merciful end, Willowdean teams up with a plus-size schoolmate, meek Millie (Maddie Baillio), and a nuance-free feminist, punky Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus), to destroy the pageant … somehow. Though this serves as the climax of the movie, the details of their plan are never clear. What role can beauty pageants play in a young woman’s life or sense of self? This movie’s fear-fueled, eager-to-please response is the equivalent of asking for world peace. That’d be nice, but a real answer would be even better.