1960s Alabama, and resident old dude Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) has just had another clash with his veteran-hippie son Carroll (Kevin Bacon) and wants nothing to do with him. Youngest son Skip is a bit of a weirdo and not much better, but luckily he still has live-in son Jimbo (Robert Patrick) who has turned out alright. During dinner one night, they receive a phone call from England — Jim’s ex-wife Naomi has just passed away. Her second husband Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), along with his two children Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor), will be bringing her body back to the States so she can be buried “with her people”.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car is a story about families, the secrets that are kept, and the sometimes strange but accepting relationships that are formed within them. On the surface, the Caldwell and Kingsford families are pretty much dysfunctional in a predictable way. Disapproving father, rebellious son, flirtatious daughter, etc. But dig a little deeper and there are some serious issues that would probably be a good idea to get resolved. The main event of the film is of course the heads of two families coming together. Given the reason for their acquaintance however, awkwardness and ill feelings are a given, but it’s the relationships and actions that follow after that give the film its more interesting aspects.
Duvall’s Jim is kind of a typical grumpy old Southern man, not really forgiving his wife for having run away to England and finding a new man, and maintains a distance with his children. He’s pretty unbearable throughout the film, but when his shining moment comes (and no spoilers — you’ll know it when it comes) it’s a doozy. Possibly some of the funniest scenes in the film, Duvall really redeems Jim here, so come the end of the film there aren’t really any hard feelings. Hurt’s Kingsley however is equally as miserable, but British, and doesn’t really get a chance to redeem himself (or at least, not as spectacular as Jim’s). Considering he’s the “other man”, more of the so-called bad guy in the world of this film, it would have made a bit more sense. Thornton as Skip is one baffling weirdo — at times childish, innocent, insightful, and offensive, I’m not sure I really liked the character all that much, but he does have some funny lines, and his storyline is quite interesting. The rest of the cast all perform quite well, but my personal favourite has got to be Ron White’s Neal, son-in-law to Jim. Though only a small role, and only in a handful of scenes in the first half of the film, he makes such an impact that it’s hard to forget him. His scene with Phillip is just gold.
Thornton also pulled directing duties, as well as co-writing with Tom Epperson. One thing I did get from this film was a real sense of atmosphere, of the time and place. The heat, the summer storm, or the LSD, all are conveyed effectively. Though the story and scenes have certain moments that are a bit unusual (relatively speaking) than the rest, they never feel out of place. They’re handled with a dreamy quality by Thornton, and make for a little variety in the film. The ending follows this trend, and is a little strange. Again, this isn’t really a spoiler (but feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you like), but it was a bit of a cliffhanger in a slightly odd kind of way — it felt like the end of a TV season (or even just the pause between ad breaks). As a commentary on how generations tend to imitate or repeat each other, it makes a valid point and is an interesting way to end the film, but still a little strange. The more I think about it, the more it grows on me.
Though nothing really spectacular, Jayne Mansfield’s Car has enough quality acting, funny lines and interesting scenes to save it from being just another boring ensemble drama. Not a must-see but enjoyable enough for those who like their films mainstream-type subtle.
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