Review: Jayne Mansfield's Car
PLOT: When the long gone matriarch of a large Southern family passes away, the husband and children she left behind must open their arms to another household she left them for. This brings an awakening for both families after her death.
Back in 1967, Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield was killed in a terrible car accident. The only survivors were her children Miklós, Zoltán and Mariska (Hargitay of “Law & Order: SVU” fame) who were all sitting in the backseat. There are a number of urban legends about this tragic event and while Billy Bob Thornton’s latest feature is entitled JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR, it is a subject that is very tactfully handled. The titular car is simply one that is on display in this fictional drama, being that it takes place not long after her untimely death. Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) is the head of a large Southern family and he has a deep fascination with car accidents, including of course the tragic one involving the Hollywood siren. He is not alone when it comes to strange behavior in this provocative feature written, directed and starring Mr. Thornton (the script is co-written by Tom Epperson).
Billy Bob Thornton the actor has a number of films on his resume that are incredibly varied in quality. Albeit as a filmmaker, he carefully picks his projects even if they don’t always stand up to his fantastic 1996 film SLING BLADE. Thankfully, he returns to the quirky nature of that small town tale with his latest feature. While JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR is not quite the melancholy masterpiece that he displayed in that Academy Award winning film (he won Best Adapted Screenplay for SLING BLADE in 1997), there is a real sense of that haunting wonderment in this compelling if slightly uneven drama.
Thornton weaves in between the lives two very different families - the Caldwell’s and the Bedford’s - dealing with the death of their matriarch who left one family to be a part of another. Once again, Thornton plays a man-child who has not an ounce of social tact. His strangely blunt relationship with one of the visitor’s is perversely poetic. One especially powerful moment begins as a strange game of sexual interaction and slowly turns into a heartfelt and emotionally revealing monologue. And as the two men who were married to the same deceased woman, Jim Caldwell (Duvall) and Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt) find themselves bonding together unexpectedly as they both are dealing with a hugely dysfunctional family dynamic.
The performances here are spot-on. Kevin Bacon is fantastic as one of three Caldwell brothers – along with Thornton and Robert Patrick – that rallies against the Vietnam War in spite of his pro-military family and their beliefs. As good as Bacon is, all three of the actors give great performances and each one is given the chance to shine. It is a real pleasure watching the wonderful chemistry between Patrick and Shawnee Smith who is terrific as his on-screen wife Vicky. Their ultra-conventional married couple has their hands full with their son (well played by Marshall Allman) who is coming-of-age in a very complicated world.
The cast also includes Ray Stevenson as Hurt’s son Phillip who is dealing with his own deteriorating relationship with his father. Once a prisoner of war, Phillip finds solace in the arms of Donna (Katherine LaNasa), the one Southern belle who welcomes the visiting family into her home. Nearly every single actor has a moment in the sun, and as the father who was abandoned by his wife and left in charge of his very large family, Robert Duvall plays Jim Caldwell perfectly. He gives a memorable performance that somehow leads the rest of this very talented cast in Thornton’s wildly eccentric script.
This monologue heavy film is sometimes weighed down by the very thing that makes it work. It is the type of script that any actor would love to get their hands on. Offbeat with many moments of dramatic prose makes for one hell of a fun acting challenge. However the complicated script tends to drag out with the many moments of self-reflection. It can be a tad cumbersome. Thornton managed to pull this off perfectly in SLING BLADE yet it occasionally feels overwrought during this film’s near two-hour running time. However, the fact that he took on such a realistically flawed family with such reverence is a bold and respectable choice.
This is a slow-moving examination of two very different families. With actors who are ready and willing to take on the poetic yet occasionally long-winded script, there is much to admire here. This type of character driven drama will not appeal to those looking for a fun Friday night flick. If you are a fan of Thornton’s earlier work however, you will definitely find JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR to be an oddly enlightening experience.