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By Pete Vonder Haar | November 9, 2006

Ashley Judd is on thin ice, as far as I’m concerned. After a string of lousy performances in a string of formulaic crime thrillers, she has yet to show any real chops as an actress, despite favorable buzz for some of her early roles. Unfortunately for her, “Come Early Morning” isn’t going to change that perception too radically.

Set in Arkansas, home state of writer/director Joey Lauren Adams, the movie opens with Lucy (or “Loose,” as her friends refer to her), going through a familiar pattern: waking up hung over with a strange dude. It’s one she seems unwilling to change, even as she shuttles between her job as a building contractor, attempts to communicate with her estranged father, and verbally spars with her sister (Laura Prepon) and mother (Diane Ladd).

The opportunity to change for the better presents itself with the entrance of Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), an “aw shucks” type of dude who – while he does end up nailing Lucy on their first date – really wants the chance to get to know her better. Can the love of a good man help her escape this cycle of self-destruction?

Adams must not have lived in Arkansas for a while, because “Come Early Morning” is rife with the most obnoxious Southern stereotypes. Everyone line dances, for example. And Cal takes Lucy frog gigging, for Christ’s sake, which she does after conveniently stripping down to her panties. I’ve lived in the South for over 20 years, and while I’ve never gigged a frog, personally, you can bet your a*s I’ll wear some pants and something on my damn feet if I ever decide to give it a try.

Judd’s attempt to get Lucy’s world-weary down look essentially means not wearing any make-up and combing her hair with a fork. Too bad Ashley Judd without foundation is still Ashley Judd, and while her repertoire of facial expressions has increased to three, it’s nowhere near enough to make Lucy an interesting character.

Of course, none of this would matter if the story was in any way original, but Adams hasn’t done anything but bring up a romantic drama screenwriting template, punch in “rural South” for the setting and “daddy issues” for the protagonist’s conundrum. The end result is stale, clumsy, and about as compelling as an average episode of “As the World Turns.”

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