The funny thing about The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is how much doesn’t actually work and how much of it appears to be entirely director Higgins’s fault. Higgins is no good at storytelling in summary (affable but bland narrator Jim Nabors can’t be helping things), and the musical numbers suggest he’s more an occasionally lucky enthusiast and not a musical director. For instance, Higgins’s direction of star Dolly Parton’s last song is a complete misfire and only saved thanks to Parton and Burt Reynolds. Worse, it comes right after Higgins and (well, maybe mostly) songwriter Parton save the previous song. So Higgins can do it; he just doesn’t do it when it theoretically counts most.
But only theoretically, thank goodness, because the most crucial scene for Parton and Reynolds comes much earlier. They go out on a very long date, no singing, no antics, just the two of them hanging out, drinking beers in the back of Reynolds’s pickup, and talking about how much they dig each other. It’s a fantastic scene, and you spend the rest of the movie wishing there’d be another one.
Reynolds is the town sheriff, Parton’s the town madam. When the present action starts, they’ve been frequent but not exclusive lovers for several years. There’s a lengthy, awkward opening narration montage with Nabors explaining the history of the whorehouse, from before Texas became white Christian nationalist (versus just white nationalist). The house hosts everyone—presidents, farmers, football players—and Parton gives readily to local charities; also, how could anyone not like Parton?
So when trouble comes, it’s from out-of-town in the delightful form of Dom DeLuise. He’s a consumer advocate (Whorehouse demonizes Ralph Nader, which is something to behold) who’s out to get the whorehouse closed down. DeLuise is obnoxious, energetic, and quite good. However, he finds himself in some of Higgins’s worst musical numbers, as DeLuise has a musical theater entourage who follows him around and performs. Higgins can’t crack the absurdism of it.
Also quite good is Charles Durning as the Texas governor who hides out instead of answering questions about DeLuise v. Parton: Dolly of Justice. He gets a great song and dance number, perhaps the film’s only example of good editing. Whorehouse has four credited editors and lots of assistants.
Occasionally, the musical numbers will succeed despite themselves. There’s a way too long “football players dancing excitedly about going to the brothel” sequence, except the dancing’s so good, and Higgins knows it, so it works out. It’s incredible since the song’s terrible. Whorehouse has at least two good songs, and they’re Parton’s, not the musical’s. None of the musical’s songs stand out except Parton and Reynolds’s duet, which is more cute than good. The film then ends with a reprise of an early song, and it’s just a reminder the song isn’t very good.
Acting-wise, Reynolds is probably the better of the two leads. Parton seems occasionally lost, which makes sense, but it’s always only temporary, and she’s infinitely likable. Unfortunately, neither really gets an arc, though Reynolds gets more to do (outside busty musical numbers).
None of Parton’s girls get characters, but housekeeper Theresa Merritt is good. Reynolds’s supporting cast is mostly town leaders; none stand out except Barry Corbin, who’s got a minimal, but distinctive role.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas seems like a can’t miss, but Higgins’s inability to do a musical hurts it. Plus, the songs. The original songs aren’t great. They should’ve had Parton rewrite the thing.
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