Craig's First Take: "Jayne Mansfield's Car"

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Alabama; 1969: The death of a clan's estranged wife and mother brings together two very different families. Do the scars of the past hide differences that will tear them apart, or expose truths that could lead to unexpected collisions?
2.5

There are a number of stories in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” that by themselves could have created an excellent impact. It’s just that Billy Bob Thornton, coming back to screenwriting and directing (along with writing partner Tom Epperson) for the first time since 2001, doesn’t seem to know how to hold it all together.

The movie is about sons with emotionally distant fathers, culture clashes, romantic relationships, how war effects men, and two crabby old men bonding over their own crabbiness and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is also the main character’s fascination with car wrecks, which at one point takes us to an exhibition of the Jayne Mansfield death car. Why we needed this detour, or why the movie went with this title, is anyone’s guess. But if ideas were cars, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” would feel like a 10 car pile-up. Luckily a great cast has been assembled here but even they are stuck in stories that never take on much significance.

Robert Duvall gives a terrific performance as Jim, a wealthy/crabby Alabama patriarch whose wife gave him four kids and then left him for England 30 years ago. Now 1969, Jim finds out from the wife’s British family that she’s died and wants to be buried back in Alabama. This brings the Bedford’s, Kingsley (John Hurt), his son Phillip (Ray Stevenson), and daughter Camilla (Frances O’Connor), to Alabama for a culture clash that never seems nearly as funny as it should. (Comedian Ron White is on hand here as the husband of Jim’s daughter and he scores the only real laughs).

But putting Duvall and Hurt together is a brilliant move, as the two men begin to reconcile their love for the same woman and realize that they have more in common than originally thought.

It’s Jim’s children who take the film in all sorts of different directions. Caroll (Kevin Bacon), an army medic in World War 2, has turned hippie and Vietnam protester now, much to the dutiful Jim’s dismay. Skip (Thornton) also fought in the war as a pilot (and was badly burned as a result) and hasn’t done much with his life since. He begins courting Camilla. Jim Jr. (Robert Patrick) has not been to war at all but in his fathers mind has turned out the most normal. And Donna (Katherine LaNassa) is the flighty and flirty daughter who has a thing for Phillip.

Nearly everyone here has a war story, everyone has an opinion based entirely on their generational views and yet it just feels like they’re all jockeying for time to say their piece without a narrative ever really forming out of that. The comic bits (like Skip wanting to wank off to Camilla’s voice or Jim sr. accidentally taking LSD) also don’t work, nor do the transitions from serious to comic.

I didn’t hate this movie. The cast is terrific and certain scenes really ring with emotional resonance, like when Skip tells Camilla about his time during the war, but overall the film just comes off like a lot of ideas and not enough impact.