Rating: R (language, sexual content, nudity, drug use, and some bloody images)
Length: 122 minutes
Release Date: August 20, 2013
Directed by: Billy Bob Thornton
Stars: 3 out of 5
In “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” Robert Duvall plays Jim Caldwell, a southern patriarch whose wife abandoned him and their four children years ago to take up with another man. It was difficult, and although Caldwell and the family somehow managed without her, the old man is beyond disappointed with his three sons. He prefers to focus on the accomplishments of his only daughter Donna (Katherine LaNasa). She has unfortunately been roped into a marriage to a local car dealer who clearly doesn’t love her. Despite her bad marriage, she is still the apple of Caldwell’s eyes, unlike the unemployed Carroll (Kevin Bacon), war vet Skip (Billy Bob Thornton), and wannabe vet Jimbo (Robert Patrick).
One day, a British family arrives in town to bring back the body of Naomi Caldwell (Tippi Hedron), the mother and wife who had abandoned the family. Her family learns that Naomi remained busy after she fled, moving to England and taking care of her new husband, Kingsley Bedord (John Hurt), and his children, Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor). They have dutifully brought Naomi’s body back, because it was her wish to be buried among her people. Although Caldwell and the clan still harbor some warranted ill will toward her, they agree to let the funeral take place, because it is the proper, Southern thing to do.
The stiff British Bedfords are a stark contrast to the Alabama Caldwells. The two sides begin to fuss and fight, sometimes over important things, but often over nothing at all. They seem to know how to push each other’s buttons, even though this is the first time they’ve met. While all the bickering and disagreements continue, a few of the opposing family members begin to form bonds, some of which are platonic, others which are not.
Since 2001’s “Daddy and Them,” the only thing that Thornton has directed has been a documentary. “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” marks his first scripted feature in over a decade, not just as a director but as a writer. There are a few spots where the rust shows, but overall Thornton does a fantastic job showcasing these two families. Although each side tries to superficially show a bit of superiority to the other, Thornton and co-writer Tom Epperson deftly peel back the layers. Once exposed, neither family seems superior; in fact, they have more in common than either side would like to admit. That’s what often happens in dysfunctional families-nobody wants to admit just how bad things are, which of course only serves to make matters worse. The fact that each family seems to bring out the worst impulses in the other only heightens the tension, which Thornton and Epperson establish and maintain well.
When Kevin Bacon broke out onto the scene in “Footloose,” he was already the veteran of several big productions, including the 1978 comedy classic “Animal House.” He has kept his leading-man looks, which is why his appearance in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is so shocking. He is almost unrecognizable as Carroll, the son who has probably disappointed patriarch Jim the most. He has long, stringy hair that looks like it hasn’t seen shampoo in weeks. Many actors of Bacon’s standing would never take on roles that make them look so disheveled. Bacon’s willingness to commit to the dashed hopes of Carroll’s life through his physical deterioration is admirable and enhances the character.
Thornton has said in interviews that his inspiration for the script was the work of playwright Tennessee Williams, who invariably wrote about dysfunctional families. His plays are eloquent and very theatrical, and many have been brilliantly adapted for the screen. In similar fashion, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is the type of film that could easily be transferred to the stage. This is part of what makes the script unique. And it helps signal the beginning of a return to form for Thornton, although fans can only hope that he doesn’t wait another decade to write or direct his next film.