When Main Street was being filmed in Durham, North Carolina, back in the spring of 2009, I remember reading quite a few articles about the production. Once the production wrapped, the film received little coverage, even in the Durham area, and I always wondered why. After watching Main Street, I now know the answer. Despite boasting a cast that includes Colin Firth, Ellen Burstyn, Orlando Bloom and Patricia Clarkson, Main Street is sub-Lifetime grade, Southern-fried hooey. Thick with syrupy accents but light on interesting characters and drama, Main Street is as dead as the faux-Durham it depicts.
When former tobacco princess Georgiana Carr (Burstyn) rents out her tobacco warehouse to Gus Leroy (Firth), he begins storing hazardous waste there for his company. Georgiana and her niece, Willa (Clarkson), are soon up in arms that the big-city Texan had the nerve to bring his barreled death down to Durham. The town in the film is short on industry and long on hard times, and police officer Harris Parker (Bloom) attends law school part time to impress high school sweetheart Mary Saunders (Amber Tamblyn). Yes, Main Street is as boring as it sounds.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll confess my immediate bias against Main Street. I live just down Tobacco Road from Durham in Chapel Hill, and find the Bull City's depiction in the film quite misleading. Sure, Durham took a hit with the fall of tobacco in the 1980s, but the city, with a population north of 260,000, continues to expand and refresh thanks to Duke University and the nearby Research Triangle Park. The late playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote wrote the film's screenplay before his death in 2009. Apparently, Foote visited Durham one weekend in the summer and found the place relatively empty, and this observation translates to the screen. Main Street only shows a few locations in downtown Durham, including the courthouse and police station, and it completely ignores the city's best restaurants, bars, cultural attractions and the Durham Bulls baseball park. Also noticeably absent are any African-American residents outside of the film's two minority city councilmen.
As for the history of Durham, I knew I was in trouble when a character began spouting off about the Cameron and Duke families within the first five minutes. The residents of Main Street's Durham are simple folk not prone to driving all of twenty-five minutes to Raleigh. Tamblyn's Mary confesses that she has never been further than Raleigh, and I half expected her to tell Harris that she dreamed of running away to Greensboro. The Southern accents are also atrocious. Georgiana refuses to allow the "Mexicans" with Gus to smoke in her "tobaccer" warehouse, and everyone responds to one another with "yes, ma'am" or "no, sir." Didn't the filmmakers realize most people in Durham have New Jersey accents? (Just kidding, Dookies). I'd be more inclined to forgive the liberties Main Street takes with its setting if it wasn't so smug about it. The film could have set up shop in any generic Southern town, but the filmmakers apparently felt Durham was integral to the plot. It's a shame they never looked around.
Lest you think my stated bias is what torpedoed my rating for Main Street, I think I can convince you that the film is bad any way you look at it. How first-time director John Doyle convinced this talented group of actors to sign on to such nonsense is beyond me. This PG-rated dud has no pulse in sight. The conflict about the hazardous waste is so uninteresting that I began to relish the stiff Southern-proper dialogue's simple pleasures. To make matters worse, Gus is actually a stand-up guy who is fully committed to safely storing the waste and bringing industrial growth to Durham. When Georgiana convinces Willa that extending the warehouse lease is the right thing to do, you would think Georgiana had won the North Carolina Mega Millions jackpot. She is that pleased with herself. The whole storyline between Harris and Mary is disposable. She wants to leave town and thinks he should, too. The pair never comes together, and I could not have cared less whether she made it to Atlanta.
The acting is sub par across the board. Each actor does his worst Southern-comfort impression, and Firth seems to slip in and out of a British accent. Bloom's stymied drawl is just plain irritating, and Tamblyn overacts during some truly eye-rolling exchanges. Poor Burstyn appears as unhinged as she did in Requiem for a Dream, and Clarkson, who at least doesn't overdo her accent, is downright boring. Director Doyle makes matters worse with his constant stream of medium shots, and no style, energy or variety is available on tap. Main Street stumbles along for 90 minutes, scarcely losing its overwrought score, but never attempts anything remotely daring. What the intent was here I cannot say, but Main Street is exasperating nonsense.
Magnolia's 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer for Main Street is unimpressive. The whole movie appears dull and lifeless, and I often wondered whether a standard-definition DVD had slipped into my player. Detail is frequently weak, and most shots lack solid depth and texture. Softness is a big problem, and some shots look smeared and blurry. Doyle's camera work may be behind these out-of-focus shots, but the Blu-ray does Main Street no favors. Colors and skin tones are fine, though contrast is muddy. Highlights are often blown out, and blacks are not particularly solid. I noticed a lot of aliasing and some compression artifacts, and some shots had a rough, edgy appearance. Even the closing titles seemed fuzzy.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is slightly anemic, but not inappropriate for the material. The track is entirely front-loaded, and little sound comes from the surround and rear speakers. Dialogue is clear and appropriately balanced, and the near-constant score never overpowers the terrible accents. Don't expect much range or a dynamic LFE, because it is not happening here. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
If you're a glutton for punishment, check out Burstyn and Tamblyn weeping in the deleted scenes (3:04/SD) or watch A Day Behind the Scenes of Main Street (5:06/HD), a short piece that spends much of its running time focusing on the crew's facial expressions. Magnolia also includes the film's theatrical trailer, some bonus previews and a BD-Live Portal.
Main Street is melodramatic nonsense. Stars Colin Firth, Ellen Burstyn, Orlando Bloom and Patricia Clarkson deserve better than this overwrought Southern parody about a businessman looking to store hazardous waste in a tobacco warehouse. The accents are offensively bad, the conflict is mundane and the acting is atrocious, and Main Street is below the quality of most daytime cable movies. Magnolia's Blu-ray is appropriately lousy, too. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.