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TIFF ’12: Billy Bob Thornton’s Film That Is Not About ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
September 11, 2012

[Monkey See will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through the middle of this week. We'll be bringing you our takes on films both large and small, from people both well-known and not.]

Here’s a declaration for you: I haven’t seen even ten percent of the films playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, but I am convinced that Jayne Mansfield’s Car has the worst title.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car is a story set in 1969 about a man named Jim (Robert Duvall) and his four kids whose mother long ago abandoned the family and married a British man, Kingsley. When she dies, Kingsley and his two children accompany her body back to Alabama to be buried, so the woman’s two families are thrown together, as people tend to be thrown together in movies with lots of talking in them.

The film is directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also plays Skip, the most apparently war-scarred of the brothers. The uptight one, Jimbo, is played by Robert Patrick and the hippie one, Carroll, by Kevin Bacon. Their sister Donna, who’s married to an obnoxious blowhard but has a couple of pretty daughters, is played by Katherine LaNasa. Playing the British family are John Hurt, Ray Stevenson, and Frances O’Connor. It’s a big cast, and naturally, various complications arise as the families get to know each other, the two men who loved the same woman mourn for her in their own ways, and you have your basic long-buried family conflicts bubbling to the surface.

But what does it have to do with Jayne Mansfield’s car? Very little. As it happens, Jim’s hobby is going to look at terrible car crash scenes — he shows up to pester the cops and check out the carnage. So when the car in which Jayne Mansfield died is brought to town in a sort of horror sideshow, he takes Kingsley to see it. That’s it — that’s the part about Jayne Mansfield’s car. I suppose his fascination with car crashes represents his obsession with revisiting how everything went so terribly wrong, but the connection is tenuous indeed, and all Thornton really gets out of it is a dramatic sequence in which blood from a body above him drips onto Duvall’s bald head.

All of this is rather self-conscious southern-family stuff, and it’s not bad, exactly, it just doesn’t come together into anything that feels significant. There are a few nice performances, and it’s never unpleasant to watch Robert Duvall drawl out some nice southern sayings. But Thornton, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Epperson, is trying to say a lot about family and a lot about death and then also a lot about war in general and Vietnam in particular. The movie he made just doesn’t seem quite up to the task.

Various characters are diverted in various ways, and they smoke some pot and listen to some music and drink and talk about their various war experiences (Jim was in World War I, while Carroll and Skip were both in World War II, and now the boys a generation behind them are worried about Vietnam). The individual scenes are sometimes charming, although a tonally off mishap involving LSD is just distracting.

But the whole is oddly unsatisfying and the film feels slow. It feels so slow, in fact, that I commented on the way out that it’s very dangerous to place a false ending in anything that slow, because the minute the audience realizes it wasn’t the real ending, they become more aware than they were before that they wanted it to be the ending.

So if you see a movie called Jayne Mansfield’s Car floating around, just remember: Sure, that’s the one about the British family and the Alabama family and going to war!

Jayne Mansfield’s Car doesn’t yet have a U.S. release date. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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