Review: 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' Never Gets Out of Neutral

Jayne Mansfield's Car

Billy Bob Thornton doesn't direct very often -- prior to Jayne Mansfield's Car, he hadn't ducked behind the camera since 2001's Daddy and Them -- but while you might assume he's just being choosy with his projects, it might just be that he doesn't have much to say.

That's the easiest conclusion to take away from Jayne Mansfield's Car, anyway. Beautifully filmed around the efforts of a remarkable cast that included Thornton, John Hurt, Robert Duvall, and Kevin Bacon, it has less in common with the titular vehicle -- which was driven fast and infamously wrecked -- than a lovingly polished antique out for an aimless sojourn. Bereft of momentum or purpose, it just sort of putters around on the narrative byways for a couple of hours until it coasts to a stop.

The setup isn't without its juicy potential. As the movie opens in 1969, we're introduced to the Caldwells, a well-off Alabama clan led by Jim (Robert Duvall) and rounded out by his children, Jimbo (Robert Patrick), Skip (Thornton), Carroll (Kevin Bacon), and Donna (Katherine LaNasa). Big Jim is clearly your classic distant patriarch, and the kids fall into the expected framework -- dutiful big brother Jimbo lords over his wife Vicky (Shawnee Smith), son Alan (Marshall Allman), and younger siblings, while Skip and Carroll lurk, damaged, in the wings.

It's a family situation worthy of its own film, but Jayne Mansfield's Car has more in store: in the opening moments, Big Jim gets a call from England, where he's informed that his ex-wife (Tippi Hedren), who left him 20 years ago and fled to England, has passed away, and her husband (John Hurt) is on his way with his son Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and daughter Camilla (Frances O'Connor) to honor her wishes by having her buried with "her people." Their impending arrival sparks an outburst from Jimbo, who's quietly told by his father that his mother deserves to have her resting place, no matter what she's done to them.

The stage is thus set for a good old-fashioned culture clash dramedy, and that's sort of what Thornton and co-writer Tom Epperson have written with Jayne Mansfield's Car -- but rather than broad set pieces and stereotype-based humor, they've loosely strung together a series of vignettes, some of which are funny, some of which are poignant, and none of which cohere into anything resembling a two-hour film.

Thornton the director is betrayed by Thornton the screenwriter here, because while this is undoubtedly a good-looking film, assembled with a number of breathtakingly lovely shots and a distinctive cinematic eye, all that craft is wasted on a storyline that amounts to a lot of powerfully acted, moderately interesting scenes. There's a beginning and an ending, but everything in between is a soft jumble; while Thornton's characters all have interesting outlines and subplots, most of which could have formed the basis for movies on their own, the script's narrative focus isn't tight or focused enough to make their actions mean anything. There are a few affecting moments and monologues, but nothing that really adheres one scene to the next; the movie just drifts along, lazy as a summer Alabama afternoon.

All of which would ultimately be more forgivable than it is if Jayne Mansfield's Car weren't 125 minutes long. At 90 minutes, this would have been a fine, forgettable trifle; at two hours plus, it feels like a movie that's straining for meaning and never comes anywhere close to formulating a point of view. The characters touch on themes -- aging, generation gaps, war, distant fathers -- but they're basically presented without comment or resolution, and because we've seen all this addressed better and more intelligently in other films, it's hard to see what the point was.

Once, Thornton seemed like he might be one of Hollywood's next great triple threats, with a slew of screenplays and a couple of high-profile directorial gigs under his belt. These days, it's looking more and more like he may have exhausted his muse or lost touch with it completely. Jayne Mansfield's Car doesn't go much of anywhere, but it still ends up a long way from Sling Blade.

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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