Triple threat John Sayles stumbles badly with this slogging story set in 1950 Alabama, about a club owner who reaches the end of his rope just as the cotton harvest begins.
The time is 1950. Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) lives in a small Alabama town with his wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and teenage stepdaughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta), running his own small bar called the Honeydripper. Despite his piano playing and the presence of a fabulous blues singer (Mable John, who sang with Ray Charles as one of the Raelettes), the place is empty, losing business to the livelier joint down the road. As the plodding and predictable story unfolds, the stereotypes of the era emerge, including the prejudiced and self-aggrandizing white sheriff (Stacy Keach), a group of disgruntled black farm workers, and even a hellfire-and-brimstone traveling preacher who sets up shop in a revival tent. In his attempt to save his bar from going under, Purvis resorts to a series of less-than-legal moves, aided by his trusty right-hand man (Charles S. Dutton) and a mysterious young man (Gary Clark Jr.), who arrives in town toting a newfangled guitar--and who eventually plays a whole new kind of music: rock and roll.
The assembled cast of Honeydripper is normally a talented group of actors, but in this film they mostly seem to be going through the motions. Danny Glover looks like he is sleepwalking through his role as the bar owner who can't make ends meet. As his wife, Lisa Gay Hamilton does a familiar, slightly histrionic variation on the put-upon spouse who retreats into religion as an escape from her family problems. And Stacy Keach is a total caricature of the bad southern sheriff. The brightest lights in this mostly dismal film are the two younger actors, Gary Clark Jr., and Yaya DaCosta, whose romance is a subplot of the central story. And the hands-down best performance is given by blues guitar great Keb' Mo', as a blind musician who offers up much-needed musical interludes throughout the film. At least he seems to be enjoying himself, while most of the others onscreen struggle to deliver the hackneyed dialogue that riddles Sayles' yawn-inducing script.
It is hard to believe that John Sayles--the same man who wrote, directed, and edited wonderful movies like Lone Star, Passion Fish and City of Hope--is the person behind Honeydripper. Sayles, one of the cinema's truly independent filmmakers, has always had a very specific vision and voice, a point of view that has garnered him two Academy Award nominations for screenwriting. But Honeydripper is just a disappointment, with its completely predictable plotline and deathly slow pace. The one bright light in this plodding tale is the music. Early on, Mable John lights things up with a couple of great old blues tunes, then Keb' Mo' throws in some terrific riffs midway, followed (finally!) by Gary Clark Jr.'s rousing rock and roll set that closes out the picture. If only the whole film was as interesting and fun to watch as the last 10 minutes, when the music really ramps up. Sadly, as it is, by the time those final moments arrive, the viewer is barely awake.
Hollywood.com rated this film 1 1/2 stars.