Billy Bob Thornton‘s first narrative directorial effort since 2001’s “Daddy and Them” certainly doesn’t lack for ambition, what with a dozen or so characters from three generations of two different families bumping heads (and other body parts) at a family funeral in the Deep South of the late 1960s.
Despite the presence of a powerhouse cast, however, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” suffers from a screenplay (by Thornton and Tom Epperson) that’s both too sprawling and too tidy; it’s one thing to explore the messiness of familial relationships and regret against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and something else entirely to try and shove every jot and tiddle in place before the closing credits roll.
Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the patriarch of a sprawling Alabama family. Jim served as a medic during World War I, and his nostalgia for carnage spurs him to listen in on police short-wave radio so that he can check out all the nearby gruesome car accidents.
While America’s latest war rages on in Southeast Asia, the Caldwell sons all bear their own scars from World War II: shell-shocked car buff Skip (Thornton) and pot-smoking hippie Carroll (Kevin Bacon) are still processing their own combat history while brother Jimbo (Robert Patrick) continues to seethe over never having seen battle.
The Caldwells are also still reeling from the desertion of their mother Naomi (Tippi Hedren filmed the role that wound up being completely cut from the film), who left them years earlier to marry an Englishman. As the film begins, Naomi has passed away, and her second husband Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt) is coming to Alabama to bury her, with his son Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and daughter Camilla (Frances O’Connor) in tow.
The Bedfords’ visit offers up one surprise after another, as Jim finds unexpected kinship with the man he considered a romantic rival, while the Caldwell children (including Katherine LaNasa as Jim’s only daughter, former beauty queen Donna) craft their own relationships with their step-sibs from across the sea.
The idea of using a family ritual as a springboard for comedy and drama and lots of eccentric characters can certainly be an effective one — Robert Altman‘s “A Wedding” has always been among my favorites of his films — but Thornton and Epperson don’t keep a tight-enough grasp on the reins. There are plenty of exceptional individual scenes, whether it’s Jim and Kingsley finding common ground or Camilla reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the nude to a smitten Skip, but “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” never quite holds together as a story.
Perhaps most disappointing is the script’s third-act insistence that several major characters air their grievances and long-repressed emotions to each other, even after it’s been well established that these particular people (in this particular region in this particular moment of history) would never do so. Add to that the lazy gimmick of personal revelations brought on by drug ingestion (“Touchy Feely” is guilty of this one as well), and you’re left with a promising screenplay that could have benefited from a few more drafts.
Still, there are wonderful moments to be gleaned here, as well as a cast chock-full of terrific actors (including Irma P. Hall, somewhat underused as the longtime family housekeeper). Like the vehicle for which it’s named, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” needs a lot of body work, but there’s no denying its star power.