Ashley Judd had quite the career going for her in the 1990s, starring in lady-led thrillers and rom-coms. But toward the mid-aughts, she seemed to disappear out of her own volition and has resurfaced only in bit parts as moms and wives.

She takes center stage again in Big Stone Gap, a Southern romance featuring Judd as a woman who seeks escape but decides, when presented with the opportunity, to stay home instead. Big Stone Gap is based on the book by Adriana Trigiani, who penned an entire series about her hometown in Virginia. But Trigiani did not just stop there: She took the reins as director of the film as well. Perhaps that's why Big Stone Gap so often feels like it would be more at home on the Hallmark Channel. The easy-breezy plot might work well in novel form, but feels ill-suited for the big screen.

It's 1978, and Judd's Ave Maria (yes, like the prayer) is a 40-year-old spinster, a classification in her world that is akin to leprosy. No real reason is given for her singledom, yet there she is, alone. Her platonic best friend (John Benjamin Hickey) is not exactly romantic material, and Jack (Patrick Wilson), a hunk she's known since childhood, seems out of her reach, despite making eyes at her whenever he sees her.

Ave Maria fills her days operating the family pharmacy and interacting with the colorful locals (played by Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman, and Jane Krakowski). But when her mother's death reveals her true lineage, Ave Maria's world is thrown into chaos. The pharmacy and her home may no longer be hers.

Big Stone Gap keeps the tone light, but the rest of the movie feels entirely flat. The plot itself has little momentum, and what should feel dramatic instead feels inert. Perhaps the movie's best quality is to act as a reminder that Ashley Judd is such an affable screen presence. She should be doing more than playing moms and wives who don't do much more than look concerned or glance lovingly at the real stars of the movie. She gives Ave Maria a soul.



Big Stone Gap ** (Out of four stars)


Directed by Adriana Trigiani. With Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, John Benjamin Hickey, Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman. Distributed by Picturehouse.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (brief suggestive material).

Playing at: Area theaters. EndText