Family drama 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' stalls out
05:00 AM, Sep 12, 2013
The moral of the overheated Southern Gothic generational saga Jayne Mansfield’s Car could be that taking acid brings dysfunctional families together.
A scene in which an elder family member is slipped some LSD in his iced tea at least brings a jot of energy and unpredictability to this slow, meandering affair (* * out of four; rated R; opens Friday in select cities). It also offers a much-needed break from tedious monologues and theatrical speechifying.
Billy Bob Thornton wrote, directed and stars in this family drama, set in Alabama in 1969.
He plays Skip, one of the four adult Caldwell children, offspring of the curmudgeonly Jim (Robert Duvall). John Hurt plays Kingsley Bedford, an Englishman who married Naomi, Jim’s free-spirited ex-wife. Naomi’s death brings the men together for her funeral, and the scenes in which good ol’ boy mentality clashes with stuffy British sensibility are a highlight. Still, both cultures are depicted through cliches.
Despite its title the movie has nothing really to do with Mansfield. One scene features Jim and Kingsley at a traveling show gazing at a wrecked car that purports to be the one in which the actress died. It’s meant as a comment on the widespread fascination with the deaths of the rich and famous, but lacks insight and depth.
Naomi’s funeral brings together Jim and his children: scarred military pilot Skip; former GI turned hippie Carroll (Kevin Bacon); frustrated straight-arrow Jim-Bob (Robert Patrick); and Donna (Katherine LaNasa), who is married to a loudmouth (Ron White). Naomi had divorced Jim, left her family and moved to England many years before, but wanted to be buried in her native Alabama.
Kingsley is accompanied to the burial by his two adult children, Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor). Bickering and romances among the two clans crop up in overly-convenient fashion.
Naomi’s past and current husbands grieve for her, and the film’s most moving moment is when Jim asks Kingsley how he and Naomi met.
Jim has conflicts with his sons, who still are determined to win the old coot’s approval. But Jim is too obsessed with car-crash scenes, to which he rushes out and surveys the human toll.
This is a story that emphasizes recurring familial patterns that arise over generations, as well as the lasting effects of war. Those themes are bolstered by some intriguingly impressionistic cinematography and a strong ensemble cast.
The characters, however are heavy on testosterone and extremism everyone is either rabidly for or against the Vietnam War, and either a patriot or a druggie. The two main female characters are on hand only to serve sexual needs.
Thornton gave himself a big role, but forgot to fully develop the character. At first he’s a socially awkward eccentric. Later, he’s a speechifying sage. But never does he feel like an authentic person. Most of the characters fall into Southern or British stereotypes and spend excessive time in talky introspection.
Self-indulgent, heavy-handed and lumbering, Jayne Mansfield’s Car is not a wreck, but it’s certainly a vehicle for boredom.