A spiritual kissing cousin of such compellingly campy ’90s Aussie-produced extravaganzas as “Strictly Ballroom” and “Muriel’s Wedding,” director Gracie Otto’s “Seriously Red” disarms and delights as a sensationally spirited concoction that neatly balances unfettered outrageousness and unabashed sentimentality. The beating heart of the entire enterprise is Krew Boylan. As screenwriter, she has created a terrific role for herself. As star, she proves absolutely fearless while illuminating every aspect of a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating, always endearing protagonist. She works a singularly impressive type of movie magic while simultaneously driving the movie over the top and anchoring the borderline-fantastical narrative in something resembling reality.
Boylan stars as Raylene Delaney, better known as Red, a socially awkward small-town New South Wales realtor with, as she herself admits, “an impulse control problem.” To put it mildly. A fanatically passionate fan of Dolly Parton, she decks herself out as her idol for a company gathering, grabs a microphone and belts out a more-enthusiastic-than-accomplished rendition of “9 to 5.” Unfortunately, the mic isn’t the only thing she grabs. As the evening progresses and her inhibitions diminish, her playfulness escalates into what her supervisor and many of her co-workers view as sexual harassment. “Because I was touching crotches?” she meekly asks during her next-day dismissal. “Many,” her stern supervisor responds.
Undeterred, Red attracts the attention of folks more approving of her antics, and she winds up immersed in a subculture of other celebrity imitators who gather at a nightspot called The Copy Club, where dead ringers for Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Streisand and other notables (many of them portrayed by real-life professional celeb doubles) congregate on-stage and off. She hooks up with an Elvis wannabe, but the evening doesn’t end as Red hopes because — well, for openers, the faux King is played (quite well) by Rose Byrne, and tensions mount when there is failure to launch.
Red is appreciably more fortunate when she wheedles her big break, more or less through sheer force of will, from Wilson (Bobby Cannavale), a club runner and talent manger who used to be a dynamite Neil Diamond impersonator. (“You’re weird enough,” he says. “I’ll give you that.”) One thing leads to another, with a logic that suggests the seemingly haphazardness of the narrative is more apparent than real, and Red is teamed with Daniel Webber as a way more obsessively immersed role-player, a Kenny Rogers look- and soundalike who insists on being addressed only as Kenny. Almost immediately, a passionate romance blossoms between the pair. And then things turn south.
The real Dolly Parton provided the whole-hearted support and co-operation without which “Seriously Red” likely would have been impossible to make. And while she never actually appears in anything but archival footage, she serves as a ubiquitous inspiration for Red (among others) throughout the film, as lyrics and aphorisms from the Country Music Queen are repeatedly quoted in dialogue and emblazoned on title cards. Among the most appropriate examples: “Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.” “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another.” And, as the perfect capper for an emotional highpoint, “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.”
(Not every lyric is treated like sacred scripture. Indeed, there is a very funny moment when someone questions the entire premise of “Islands in the Stream,” Dolly’s classic duet with Kenny: “A stream is a small body of water! There is no way an island fits into a stream!”)
And yet, beneath all the broadly played antics and flashy musical performances — all enhanced by costume designer Tim Chappel and makeup artist Cassandra Hanlon, veterans of “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” — there are serious undercurrents, as the movie questions with gradually escalating insistence just what you might lose of yourself when you assume someone else’s identity for fun and/or profit. Midway through, Red opts to go Totally Dolly with breast-enhancement surgery that is depicted in a candy-colored, bold-as-brass production-number fantasy that plays like a delirious collaboration of Ken Russell and Busby Berkeley. Even here, though, the tone is skeptical, if not downright cautionary. (Credit “Get Out” cinematographer Toby Oliver for splendidly imaginative visuals here and elsewhere.) Worse, Red is crushed when Kenny tells her he is more of an ass man.
It falls to Cannavale’s Wilson to seal the deal, thematically speaking, when, while asked by Red why he quit his Neil Diamond act, he warns: “The more unique you are as a person, the harder it is to be someone else.” On the other hand, the longer the scene continues, the more Wilson demonstrates how much joy he experienced during his former career, and how damn good he was at the top of his form, skillfully sustaining the movie’s delicate balance between wanting your cake and watching your calories.
Cannavale is just one of the standouts in a strong supporting cast that includes, in addition to the aforementioned Byrne and Webber, Thomas Campbell as Francis, Red’s sexually ambiguous best buddy; Jean Kittson as Viv, her outspoken mom; and Celeste Barber as Teeth, a feisty roadie who manages to gobsmack the flamboyant Red when she explains her nickname.
If Boylan remains the uncontested center of attention, that’s primarily because she’s the one who repeatedly traverses the most daunting of the movie’s mood swings and tonal shifts. Even during moments when Red is testing our patience with her excess, Boylan is never less than endearing — which makes sense, since she gave herself a shrewdly hand-tooled star vehicle in which to shine.