While Billy Bob Thornton is mainly known as an actor, it never hurts to remind people that he is also a writer and director. In fact, as you may recall, he took home an Oscar for his screenplay to “Sling Blade,” a film that also earned him a Best Actor nomination. Since then, he hasn’t really had as much success behind the camera, directing three films (“All the Pretty Horses,” “Daddy and Me,” and “The King of Luck”) that didn’t make much of a splash. None of these films were received particularly well either, but it still didn’t discourage him from soldiering on. It’s been over ten years since he last took on a narrative film, but at last he has returned with “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” which is actually over a year and a half old, but is just now finding its way into U.S. theaters.
Taking place in 1969 Alabama, the film involves two families coming together (there’s that same old plot device again…) for a funeral. The multitude of characters includes Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) and his family, including sons Skip (Billy Bob Thornton) and Carroll (Kevin Bacon). Several years ago, Jim’s wife left him for an Englishman, Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), but now that she has died, it’s been decided that she should be buried in Alabama. This leads to Kingsley and some of his family coming across the pond to attend the funeral. Obviously there is a bit of tension as to how Jim is going to react when he meets the man who took his wife, but surprisingly things go well for the most part. However, at the wake, Kingsley suffers a slight attack, presumably from stress and the heat, causing them to stay longer than planned. Because of this, the two families get more time to interact, leading to a few interesting occurrences.
“Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is a bit of an oddity in that there’s not really much of a plot to speak of, giving it the feeling of a film that’s adrift as it searches for something to do. Like other films that use the “two families coming together” plot, it gets momentum off of the interactions between them, but that’s pretty much all that this film uses in terms of narrative. There’s not really much in the way of development, character-wise or plot-wise, so for the most part, you’re left waiting to see what zany event will happen next as the English family tries to get along with the family from the Deep South.
As you would expect, you get awkward interactions such as Kingsley’s son, Philip (Ray Stevenson), conversing with another member of the Caldwell clan, Jimbo (Robert Patrick), an ill-mannered, beer-guzzling kind of guy. You also get romance, as is quite typical with this type of movie. This time it’s between Skip and Camilla Bedford, who slowly get to know each other and eventually find that they like each other quite a lot. There’s another romance that pops up later on between two other characters, but it ends up feeling completely random, whereas Skip and Camilla’s feels a little more genuine.
Where the film ends up working best is in its most dramatic moments, such as when Skip is explaining how he was nearly killed in World War II, leaving him with burn scars over much of his body, or when Philip stands up for himself regarding his role in the war. He was captured in his first battle, spending most of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese, but he still sees himself as having been a soldier, a position his father doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with. These moments could have slid into melodrama rather easily, but they are handled skillfully, giving the film at least some impact.
The main reason why these moments work so well is because of the performances. The cast here, including Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, and John Hurt, is fantastic. It makes you wish that the film had had more of a direction in which to head instead of feeling so aimless. These are all such talented actors and a great delight to see on the screen, but they deserve something a little better than a story that’s most likely going to be forgotten in a short while. That being said, at least you get the feeling of being in good company while watching it.
In case you were wondering about the title, it refers to one scene in the film in which Jim, Kingsley, and another Caldwell go to see the titular car on display in a grocery store parking lot. Jim has a bizarre hobby of going to see every car crash in the area, which he gets word about through his police scanner, so of course he can’t pass up the opportunity to see the car that Mansfield died in. This hobby of his is never explained, so it becomes difficult to connect with his enjoyment of it. As to why Thornton would want to name the film after this one scene is anyone’s guess.
It would be inaccurate to say that this is a bad film as it comes somewhat close to being recommendable, but once it’s over, you just can’t shake that feeling of being dissatisfied with the somewhat empty nature of it. These are some interesting characters, they just don’t do much in the two hours that we spend with them. When all is said and done, you’ll simply be left wondering why there wasn’t more to it. 2.5/4 stars.
Starts tomorrow in limited release. Now available on Video on Demand.
Now playing in theaters: Riddick, Hell Baby, Touchy Feely, Passion, The Lifeguard, Short Term 12, The Grandmaster, Kick-Ass 2, 2 Guns, Only God Forgives, Fruitvale Station, Despicable Me 2, Monsters University
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