The Vietnam-era Southern family saga "Jayne Mansfield's Car," Billy Bob Thornton's first directorial outing in more than a decade, is old-fashioned big-cast melodrama, treated by its director as if it were a nostalgic heirloom. Written with Thornton's "One False Move" co-writer Tom Epperson, the movie even gets away with its classicist vibe for a good while too.
Robert Duvall plays an small-town Alabama patriarch with three middle-aged sons (zoned-out loner Thornton, hard-headed Robert Patrick, anti-war hippie Kevin Bacon) sporting individualized scars about their World War II service, Daddy's emotional reticence and the mother who abandoned them. (The lone daughter, played by Katherine LaNasa, is just in a bad marriage.) When word comes that Ma's died, her second family in England — gentlemanly John Hurt and his adult offspring played by Frances O'Connor and Ray Stevenson — make the trek from England for the funeral, the first mixing of the clans.
The pot of unrealized ambition, pent-up emotion and cultural friction is adequately stirred for a while, but by a certain point the deliberate pokiness and lackadaisical attitude toward character development and resolution feels like spilled food that never gets completely wiped up. With actors this good, however, there's rarely a pinched expression, heartfelt speech or laugh line that isn't at least partly sold, even if the stunted-male psychologizing at the expense of the under-written women grows tiresome.
"Jayne Mansfield's Car"
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content, nudity, drug use and some bloody images.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood.
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