Film Review: Jayne Mansfield's Car

Billy Bob Thornton&#8217;s return as a screen <i>auteur </i>is anything but a joyous occasion.

It’s Alabama in 1969, and the focus is on the highly dysfunctional Caldwell clan. Papa Jim (Robert Duvall) is a crotchety old tyrant with troubled relationships with his children. Among the three boys there’s ex-GI Carroll (Kevin Bacon), who is now a proud counterculture member, high on drugs and Vietnam War protests; Skip (Billy Bob Thornton), a former fighter pilot scarred both physically and by his father’s indifference; and Jimbo (Robert Patrick), a right-winger mightily pissed off that he “missed” the war by never getting a chance to actually fight in it. There’s also a daughter, Donna (Katherine LaNasa), and a couple of teenage grandsons (Marshall Allman and John Patrick Amedori) hanging around.

This combative, war-torn clan is soon uneasily joined by another branch of the family, when the body of Jim’s ex-wife is brought over for burial from England by her second husband Kingsley (John Hurt) and his grown kids from an earlier marriage (Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connor). The intermeshing of the two families results in a bit of romance and a whole lot of bickering.

This is Thornton’s first film as writer-director in over a decade and, frankly, the rust shows. It’s an over-plotted, overpopulated, weightily self-indulgent contemplation of war’s legacy and life’s mutability which seems to go nowhere and takes forever doing so. For anyone interested about the title, yes, the blonde bombshell’s death vehicle is featured, but only after the tragic fact of her demise, serving as a two-ton metaphor for the glamorization of death and celebrity which continually obsesses America. Got that? Thornton’s heavy dose of Southern Gothic—mixed with his crusty feelings about “War, what is it good for?”—is riddled with so many blinding clichés that you feel completely distanced. The spectacle of so much slightly deflated yet unbowed testosterone blowing hard from Jim, Kingsley and their boys in repetitive confrontation scenes proves enervating. Thornton even includes–God help us–that faithful black retainer-woman in the form of Irma P. Hall, who clucks over those crazy Caldwells and at one point has a scene with a grandson in his BVDs that disconcertingly recalls Zac Efron and Macy Gray in The Paperboy.

The women, naturally, are largely wasted, being mere worriers about and sex conduits for their men, and it is sad to see the talented O’Connor sink without a trace into the macho morass. Thornton—fond of appearing shirtless, all the better to display his martyr’s scars—gets to do a narcissistic, eternally suffering hunk routine, while Bacon could have sleepwalked through his rebel-with-a-bong role. Hurt does what he can with a thankless role, but like most of the cast is little more than a histrionic handmaiden for the tiresome Duvall, who occupies center stage here, like a sitting bull, with a performance that is monumental in its bogus bluster and boredom.