Jayne Mansfield's Car: Berlin Film Review

Berinale Film Festival
Billy Bob Thornton’s rough charms make him always a welcome screen presence, but his return to the writer-director chair doesn’t stand a chance with this labored script.

Robert Duvall, John Hurt and Kevin Bacon star with Billy Bob Thornton in his multi-generational story of an Alabama family amid the ferment of the late '60s.

BERLIN – The famous wreck of the title is sadly analogous to the general shambles that is Jayne Mansfield’s Car, the first film from Billy Bob Thornton as writer-director in 11 years. Thematically diffuse, tonally inconsistent and blighted by an inauthentic feel for its story’s time and place, it sits awkwardly between sober human drama and lighter dysfunctional-family turf, constantly striving for unearned emotions.

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Clearly stung by his bruising experience with Miramax on All the Pretty Horses, and by the subsequent bypassing of a theatrical release on Daddy and Them, Thornton has stayed away from directing features since 2001.

With its Southern setting and personal elements inspired by childhood memories of his father and brothers, there was hope that this Russian-produced project might be a return to the form of Thornton’s very fine 1996 debut, Sling Blade. It also reunites him with Tom Epperson, with whom he co-wrote Carl Franklin’s terrific 1992 neo-noir One False Move (as well as the more patchy 2000 Sam Raimi film, The Gift). But despite having gathered together a solid cast of reliable talents, something went badly wrong here.

Overlong and overstuffed, the new film has the feel of a clumsily adapted novel that tries to cover too many characters, plot threads and back stories more suited to a literary canvas. Set in Alabama in 1969, it dutifully touches on mortality and the fascination with death; war and its inescapable legacy; culture clashes; father-son incomprehension; sibling rivalry; and old-fashioned values chafing against anti-establishment liberal unrest. The script too often hammers these notes in dialogue that spells everything out with painstaking insistence. It becomes gruesomely inevitable that sooner or later someone’s going to say, “Times are changing.”

Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) is a wealthy ole boy whose heart is “a cold, dark place” as his sons keep telling him. He’s ashamed of Carroll (Kevin Bacon), a former soldier who is now a Vietnam-protesting, acid-dropping pothead; and indifferent to the eternal limbo of Skip (Thornton), a veteran Navy fighter pilot, now 50 and still seeking dad’s approval. Jim has more in common with his namesake Jimbo (Robert Patrick), an ultraconservative with a chip on his shoulder about having spent the war on laundry duty without seeing combat.

There’s also frisky fourth sibling Donna (Katherine LaNasa), as well as Jim’s two teenage grandsons (Marshall Allman, John Patrick Amedori) to provide fodder for more cross-generational reflection.

The catalyst prompting this communication-challenged clan to take a closer look at one another is the news from England that Jim’s ex-wife Naomi has died of cancer. Her second husband, Kingsley (John Hurt), and his adult offspring from an earlier marriage, Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor), honor Naomi’s wishes by accompanying her body back to Alabama to be buried.

They bring with them their own set of internal conflicts, plus the baggage of two further experiences of different wars, and romantic distractions for Skip and Vicky. Their arrival proves a test for Jim, since he has spent 20 years hating the man chosen over him by his free-spirit wife.

From the moment the long-serving help (Irma P. Hall) starts reeling off detailed family history simply because exposition is her job, it’s clear we’re in for some pedestrian storytelling. But the schematic developments and pre-programmed confrontations go beyond expectations, becoming more dramatically bogus as things progress.

Very occasionally, a poignant scene surfaces from the morass. Among them is a quiet exchange between Duvall and Hurt, in which Jim asks how Kingsley and Naomi met. Thornton and O’Connor also bring sensitivity to what starts as a sexual tryst in the woods but shifts course into a sobering account of Skip’s wartime experience and near-fatal injuries. Even here, however, the prose is too strained to make the moment resonate.

While it apparently comes directly from Thornton’s own father’s fixation with car crashes, Jim’s regular attendance at accident scenes seems a ham-fisted device for contemplating the moment life is extinguished. Ditto the title reference, which pertains to the morbid traveling sideshow display of the wrecked auto in which Mansfield was killed. “The fact is, we all have a crash of some sort awaiting us,” says Kingsley after viewing that exhibit, in one of many lines that induce groans.

Neither the Brits nor the Americans convey a sense of being part of the same family given that Thornton as director fails to make the ensemble knit together in a convincing way. Across the board, these actors deserve better, but they frequently seem to be in different films. The lack of dramatic texture is matched by the drab production, which brings the visually flat look of a conventional TV movie to its stand-in Georgia locations.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson, Katherina LaNasa, Frances O’ Connor, Shawnee Smith, Ron White, John Patrick Amedori, Marshall Allman, Irma P. Hall
Production companies: A.R. Films, Media Talent Group
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Screenwriters: Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Epperson
Producers: Alexander Rodnyansky, Geyer Kosinski
Executive producers: Mark C. Manuel, Sergei Bespalov, James D. Brubaker, Robert Teitel
Director of photography: Barry Markowitz
Production designer: Clark Hunter
Music: Owen Easterling Hatfield
Costume designer: Doug Hall
Editors: Lauren Zuckerman
Sales: Hyde Park International
No rating, 122 minutes