I love this movie: 'Jayne Mansfield's Car'

05:00 AM, Aug 21, 2013

Billy Bob Thornton and Kevin Bacon in 'Jayne Mansfield's Car.' Van Redin/


Written By by Whitney Matheson, USA TODAY

Despite winning numerous awards (including the Oscar) for his work as an actor, writer and director, it seems Hollywood has never quite known what to do with Billy Bob Thornton.

I’ve appreciated the Arkansas-bred artist’s output over the years, from the magnificent Sling Blade to the Coen brothers’ Man Who Wasn’t There to, yes, Bad Santa. His memoir, The Billy Bob Tapes, is one of the best books I’ve read this year, offering free-wheeling commentary about his film career, passion for music and heartfelt appreciation of the South.

Last night I watched Thornton’s new film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, which just became available on demand. It marks his return to writing and directing; the last flick he helmed and penned was 2001’s Daddy and Them.

First off, Jayne Mansfield’s Car boasts an incredible ensemble cast that includes Thornton, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and Frances O’Connor. Set in 1969 in rural Alabama, much of it is a father-son tale about three veterans of World War II and their dad (Duvall), a tight-lipped WWI vet. Their lives, already wrought with tension, are thrown into disarray when a British family, led by Hurt, arrives for a visit.

The film refuses to fit into any genre and encompasses heavy drama alongside social commentary and Thornton’s nuanced sense of humor. Numerous scenes made me laugh not because they delivered clear punchlines, but because they reminded me of characters from my own small-town Southern family. (Thornton’s casting of Texas comedian Ron White is particularly inspired.)

While critics have generally been kind to Thornton over the years, I have a feeling Jayne Mansfield’s Car will divide them. It’s not a particularly focused film, and it leaves many unanswered questions. I also imagine this is the type of movie that makes marketing execs scratch their heads; the poster’s tagline, “Torn Apart. Driven Together,” makes about as much sense as shaving cream on a biscuit.

But this is precisely why I adored the movie and wish Thornton would write and direct more often. While many filmmakers go broad on the big screen, Thornton understands the beauty in specifics. His character anchors the film, but Thornton also allows every cast member to shine.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car is now on demand and on iTunes, with a limited theatrical release slated for Sept. 13. You can see the trailer below, though you’ll have to excuse the ridiculous voiceover: