Irish playwright and literary critic George Bernard Shaw once famously said, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” Billy Bob Thornton appears to have taken this advice to heart for his new film Jayne Mansfield’s Car, an exploration of family, faith and fatherhood inspired in part by the actor’s own life experiences.
Warmly observed — but largely dependent on a glut of cheap laughs and a third-act nosedive into gooey-hearted sentiment — Thornton’s country-fried melodrama attempts to blend the wounded vitality of a Tennessee Williams play with the fraught family dynamics of Tracy Letts’ similarly themed August: Osage County. The result is a disjointed, overlong jumble buoyed by a dutiful late-career performance from Robert Duvall.
The film, Thornton’s first time in the director’s chair since 2001’s Daddy and Them, revolves around the Caldwell Plantation in 1969 Alabama, home to a wealthy clan of idle eccentrics dominated by God-fearing, Yankee-loathing patriarch Jim (Duvall) and his three grown sons. The old man also has a daughter, Vicky (Shawnee Smith), who escaped just long enough to fall in love with a misogynistic lunkhead named Neal (comedian Ron White, sans his usual cigar and tumbler of scotch whisky).
Jim’s oldest son, Jimbo (Robert Patrick), envies his brothers Carroll (Kevin Bacon, vaguely channeling Eric Stoltz’s character in Pulp Fiction) and Skip (Thornton) for becoming decorated World War II heroes while he languished in basic training. Carroll, disillusioned by his own time in the service, spends his days smoking pot and organizing local peace rallies, much to his father’s consternation, while Skip, the quiet dreamer who suffered horrible burns while flying for the Navy, staves off shellshock by maintaining his impressive fleet of sports cars.
The Caldwells continue in this state of dysfunctional detachment until the news breaks that Jim’s estranged ex-wife has died in England and her “other” family is bringing her remains back to Alabama for burial. After the funeral, Jim reluctantly opens his home to the strangers, led by Kingsley (John Hurt), the recent widower, and his two adult children: burly, brooding Philip (Ray Stevenson) and free-spirited Camilla (Frances O’Connor from The Hunter), the latter of whom immediately develops feelings for Skip. The resulting long weekend leads to a torrent of confessions, revelations and nude poetry readings that would make the gang from The Big Chill think twice about the dangers of oversharing.
Even though they initially come across as little more than fussy British stereotypes, Kingsley’s brood supplies the film with a much-needed injection of variety and pep, especially during the otherwise listless finale. Hurt makes Kingsley’s awkward efforts to bond with Jim oddly moving, with the exception of a poorly-timed sight gag involving the ingestion of LSD on a hunting trip, while Stevenson, a gifted actor too often relegated to meathead roles in action clunkers such as Punisher: War Zone and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, delivers his finest performance since Kill the Irishman as Phillip, whose devoted demeanor masks reservoirs of barely-contained resentment for the father who trivializes his accomplishments at every turn.
The principal pleasure of Jayne Mansfield’s Car comes from watching a performer of Duvall’s caliber scratch at the seams of Jim’s crotchety, weather-beaten soul, making him the most fully realized character in Thornton and Tom Epperson’s wildly uneven script. And even though the eponymous automobile makes a cameo appearance somewhere around the halfway mark, the movie’s title has less to do with the demise of the 1950s blonde bombshell than the old man’s morbid fascination with car crashes, an obsession purportedly taken from Thornton’s own father, who would routinely drag his children to the sites of grisly accidents and force them to stare at the twisted wreckage for hours on end.
Though Jayne Mansfield’s Car is a solid showcase for the acting talent involved, nothing here comes even close to approaching the artistic heights of Thornton’s previous work, particularly the screenplay he co-wrote with Epperson for the underrated drug thriller One False Move and, of course, his oft-imitated, still mesmerizing performance in Sling Blade. Compared to that level of pure, unfettered creativity, this Car is running on fumes.
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