“Red, White & Royal Blue” waits just seven and a half minutes to get to the good stuff, and by that I’m not referring to the movie’s big romance, between a hot British prince and the hot son of the American president, but to its even bigger accent, a syrupy Southern drawl from Uma Thurman that may be this season’s most audacious special effect. Imagine Gina Gershon in “Showgirls” crossed with Ross Perot and you’ll get halfway there — the rest of the distance must be traveled holding a mint julep that’s in constant, delicious danger of spilling.
President Uma Thurman (the actual character name is incidental, since you will never not be thinking “President Uma Thurman” when she’s onscreen) is introduced accent-first, with her back to the camera, because encountering this voice head-on would surely be too much for the unprepared Prime Video viewers who stumbled upon the movie after bingeing “Bosch.” We meet her as she’s busy lecturing her hot son about his initial clash with the hot prince. “Darlin’,” President Uma Thurman says, “yew’ve dun some pretty stupid things in yur day, buh this …”
To say my ears perked up is an understatement: It was as though Arianna Huffington had appeared before me reciting a monologue from “True Blood.” This is not an accent you should attempt while operating heavy machinery, but Thurman ladles it on so thick that you have to admire the movie-star chutzpah. I even started to miss her whenever “Red, White & Royal Blue” cut back to the hot boys’ romantic misadventures: Why are we spending time on these tedious hunks when the most suspenseful thing about the movie is how President Uma Thurman will pronounce any given word?
Some reviews have taken issue with Thurman’s performance, a complaint I only agree with up to a point. Is she miscast? Well, maybe! If you’re looking for someone to play a salt-of-the-earth politician with working-class roots, you wouldn’t naturally think of the “Pulp Fiction” star, whose bearing is so patrician that she was once the go-to actress for noblewomen and goddesses. And though President Thurman’s hot gay son is hesitant to come out to her, that didn’t really track for me: How can you fear homophobia from a woman who once did a five-episode arc on “Smash”?
So yes, I’ll concede all that, but I have to push back when people start complaining about Thurman’s accent. Can something that brings us this much pleasure possibly be “bad”? Thurman adds a jolt of oh-you’re-really-going-for-it gusto to each of her scenes in “Red, White & Royal Blue,” and the performance is a hoot; though her lines may be as Southern-smothered as grits, I found them every bit as tasty. Others may nitpick, but all I know is that I was gaga for it — and I don’t mean “gaga” as in enthusiastic, I mean “gaga” as in whatever Lady Gaga was doing in “House of Gucci.”
Then again, I’ve never been a stickler for cinematic accents. Some people want to be impressed by a movie, but I ask only to be entertained. Sure, it’s technically imposing when someone nails an accent, but what kind of buzzkill waits in the audience with a poised red pen? In the era of the ultra-glossy $200 million blockbuster, a little bit of artifice can be welcome and even touching: It’s a reminder that every movie comes down to a whole bunch of human beings who’ve decided to play pretend for you.
Some people complain that an over-the-top accent takes them out of the reality of the film, but I find it pulls me into the pocket of surreality that every movie must muster. For instance, I have no idea if Benny Safdie’s jarring Hungarian accent in “Oppenheimer” is realistic, and frankly, I don’t care: That focus-pulling voice feels right for the physicist Edward Teller, an overweening character who refuses to mesh with the other scientists. Some critics quibbled with the Italian accents in “House of Gucci,” but I can’t imagine those two and a half hours without them. If Lady Gaga and Jared Leto weren’t talking like Wario by way of “Moonstruck,” the movie would have been sapped of all its fun!
The “House of Gucci” director Ridley Scott is hardly a purist when it comes to accents. His forthcoming war film “Napoleon” and recent drama “The Last Duel” both take place in France, but the actors are basically speaking … well, let’s say affected English. Scott once said that forcing French accents on the stars of “The Last Duel” would have been “a disaster,” but on that count, I beg to differ. Imagine Ben Affleck winding up to crucial lines with a snooty “a-hon-hon-hon!” Now that you have, you won’t want to go without.
Often, the people who get angriest about accents are the ones who say, “I’m actually from there, and that’s not how people talk in real life.” But movies aren’t real life and were never supposed to be. They’re fun-house mirrors meant to reflect us back in unusual ways, dream worlds that ask us to believe in things as outlandish as multiverses, 10-foot-tall blue people, or Mark Wahlberg playing a science teacher.
As a native of Southern California, I am absolutely thrilled when actors try our valley cadences (has Emma Watson ever been better than in “The Bling Ring”?) and I wouldn’t dream of fact-checking them for accuracy. I’m even amused by how many Brits speak American in a monotone clench that recalls Mira Sorvino in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion”: You’re doing that to entertain me? How cute!
When it comes to accent work, you don’t have to be good, you just have to be interesting. I admit, though, that I may be speaking from personal experience. A high school teacher once challenged me to speak in a British accent in front of the class, and in a panic, my mind seized on Katharine Hepburn (notably, not British). Attempting to mimic her exotic manner of speaking, I landed somewhere north of Mid-Atlantic and drowned.
But what a way to go. I still remember the other students’ faces: shocked, delighted, appalled, compelled. It’s all the things I feel now when an actor tries an accent that either falls short of the mark or overshoots it wildly. There is a clip from a British stage production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that regularly makes the rounds because the actress Sienna Miller recites her Tennessee Williams dialogue like she’s Jodie Foster in “Nell.” I watch it every single time, analyzing those few seconds like they’re Zapruder footage. I have even come to the conclusion that if Southern people don’t actually sound like that, well, maybe they should start.
So as far as I’m concerned, Uma Thurman has nothing to apologize for. Sure, it’s hard to buy her as a character who hails from Austin, but the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” and you can’t fault Thurman’s accent for trying. To me, it’s far more embarrassing that “Red, White & Royal Blue” rips a page from Ryan Murphy’s handbook and forces Thurman to drawl about Truvada and bottoming just so the moment can go viral on Gay Twitter. Her accent was already enough for that!
If nothing else, I hope I’ve convinced you that a little more latitude is needed when viewers are determined to declare a movie accent as something that’s either “good” or “bad.” It’s astonishing when an actor like Meryl Streep can pull out an impeccable accent like it’s nothing, but it’s just as fascinating when people try. We can often be high-minded about the craft of performance, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of one awfully entertaining truth: A whole lot of acting is just funny talking.