Jayne Mansfield’s Car

I wrote this review in 2012, expecting that the film would eventually be released theatrically. It never happened–at least not in the Bay Area. However, as it’s available on disc and pay-per-view, I’ve decided to publish the review.

C Drama

  • Written by Tom Epperson & Billy Bob Thornton
  • Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

When Sling Blade came out in 1996, we all though that writer-director Billy Bob Thornton was the new auteur to watch. Instead, he became a movie star–or at least a well-known character actor. Every so often he returns to writing and directing, but he has never matched the promise of Sling Blade.

Consider his new film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car. A southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war, it provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script.

Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving JMC_03951.jpgpatriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him. One of those sons is married, and his wife and son live there, as well. As far as I could tell, no one in this family works for a living.

Early on, Jim gets an important, overseas phone call. His ex-wife, the mother of his children, has died. Although she left him decades ago, moved to England, and remarried, she wanted to be buried back home in Alabama. Why? Because otherwise there would be no movie. So along with her corpse comes the Brits–her second husband and his children from a previous marriage.

So you get a funeral, a culture clash, sex between people slightly related by marriage, and the unintended use of a psychedelic drug. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs.

The film is set in 1969, so youthful rebellion also plays a part. The picture even opens with a very small anti-war march. Jim’s son Carroll (a long-haired Kevin Bacon) represents the counterculture, even though as a World War II veteran, he’s clearly too old for it. He seems to spend most of his time smoking pot, meditating, and running light shows. He has a son in danger of being drafted.

This picture is really about the long-term effects of war. Both Jim and his ex-wife’s second husband served in World War I. That second husband, with the very British name of Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), walks with a cane from a battle wound.

Their sons are also war damaged. Although in some ways Carroll is the most together of Jim’s three sons (he’s the only one not living with his father), Jim suggests that his problems are war-related. His brother Skip (Thornton) has serious scaring all over his body and seems to have never matured past adolescence. The third son, Jimbo  (Robert Patrick), didn’t serve and feels that he missed something. Kingsley’s son Philip spent most of the war in a Japanese prison camp–which permanently ruined his digestion and his relationship with his father, who accuses him of cowardice.

The cast is uniformly terrific, or as terrific as the weak writing allows. Among the standouts is Frances O’Connor, whom I’d never seen before, as Bedford’s daughter. Unlike everyone else, she seems to happily embrace life. However, among cinematic sex scenes that I never want to see again, I have to include O’Connor, naked, enthusiastically reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade while…never mind.

Thornton wanted to make a great drama, but he didn’t succeed. Conflicts are heavy-handed and overly explained. And everyone, from the generous but bigoted southerners to the stiff-upper-lip Brits, are stereotypes. The excellent cast pulls the weak script up to the point where it’s reasonably entertaining, but a drama with too many conflicts and not enough depth can only go so far.