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Billy Bob Thornton’s ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’ Stalls Out

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CHICAGO – There was a time when it looked like not only would Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton be one of our great actors but possibly a threat behind the camera as well. Everyone knows the impression of his character from “Sling Blade” but many forget that he directed it as well. He followed that up with the flawed but ambitious and interesting “All the Pretty Horses.” Then his career faded, failing to find the parts that could really show his undeniable talents in front of the camera and simply not working behind it.

His first directorial effort since 2001’s awful “Daddy & Them” is making its debut on some On Demand platforms and in limited release this Friday and, despite some interesting performances and ideas, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is not the movie to give Billy Bob his much-needed comeback. It’s episodic, uneven, bizarre, clichéd, and boring all at the same time. And every time it feels like it’s finally going to cohere into the modern Tennessee Williams piece that it clearly aspires to be, it careens off the road in sometimes spectacular fashion.

Jayne Mansfield's Car
Jayne Mansfield’s Car
Photo credit: Anchor Bay

It is 1969 Alabama, a hotbed of social issues for Thornton and co-writer Tom Epperson (“One False Move,” which features a great supporting turn from Thornton) to play with from Vietnam to the civil rights movement. In fact, the film opens with a protest. Carroll Caldwell (Kevin Bacon) is protesting the Vietnam war in his small town, getting arrested, and getting chewed out by his tough-as-nails Great War vet pop Jim (Robert Duvall). Jim has two other sons, the solid and old-fashioned Jimbo (Robert Patrick) and the oddball Skip (Thornton). They have been raised by their aggressive father since their mother Naomi skipped town for the U.K. decades earlier.

Culture clashes abound when the Caldwells receive a call informing them that their estranged mom is dead. She has asked that her body be brought back to Alabama to be buried. And with her comes her British family, including second husband Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt) and his family, which includes Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor). Multiple generations, Brits vs. Americans, the difference between the approach to World War I, WWII, and Vietnam, PTSD, the expansion of drugs into small towns in the ‘60s, general large family drama – Thornton has dozens of themes to plug into his soap opera and he wants to include every one. “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is cluttered with characters and subplots, and only a few of them resonate at all.

Jayne Mansfield's Car
Jayne Mansfield’s Car
Photo credit: Anchor Bay

Which ones work? The quiet, dialogue-driven, non-substance-enhanced scenes in “JMC” actually work. There’s a great monologue from Thornton in which he reveals the darkness of his experience in World War II to O’Connor and there’s a sweet scene at the end between the three brothers. I also found what the underrated Katherine LaNasa does here engaging, as she reaches out to Phillip for a little attention that she clearly hasn’t received from her louder-than-she-is family. None of the performances are particularly bad. Everyone seems to find a moment or two to show viewers a glimpse of what they saw in the script in the first place.

It’s the film as a whole that doesn’t work. It’s one of the most tonally uneven things you’ll see all year. Truthful, poignant moments are followed by true oddities like slow-motion montages set to an overdone guitar solo or, for reasons I won’t explain here, seeing Billy Bob’s “O face.” The drug/Vietnam material feels remarkably clichéd and familiar. Duvall can do this “Great Santini” routine in his sleep. The broad strokes with which Brits and the ‘60s South are portrayed feel too surface level. And the movie veers tragically in terms of tone. Thornton would have been wise to jettison half of his characters and focus more on what remained. I could watch John Hurt and Robert Duvall drive around the ‘60s South just talking to each other for an hour. And it feels like that’s what engages Thornton the most as well but he felt forced to give multiple characters multiple arcs and made multiple movies in the process. I just wanted one solid work in the last decade. We didn’t need a movie that tries to be five and ends up being none.

“Jayne Mansfield’s Car” stars Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, Ray Stevenson, Robert Patrick, Shawnee Smith, John Hurt, Katherine LaNasa, and Frances O’Connor. It was written by Thornton and Tom Epperson and directed by Thornton. It is now available On Demand and opens Friday, September 13, 2013 in New York, Atlanta, Dallas, and other markets.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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