Review: Jayne Mansfield’s Car (2012)

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Cast: Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Country: USA | Russia
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Jayne Mansfield’s Car is now open in limited release and on VOD

Like the tragic, crowd-drawing wreck from which it takes its name, Jayne Mansfield’s Car is a movie that’s inexplicably beguiling, hard to look away from despite the fatal mess it is. That’s true for the in-film events too as an American-as-apple-pie family in 1969 plays host to the Englishman and his children for whom their wife and mother, twenty years prior, abandoned them. Her death, and the lives it brings crashing into their own, is the conduit to a cross-cultural comedy of manners that is, for all its failings, a fine insight into the fluidity of family. Billy Bob Thornton’s fourth feature as director, and first in over a decade, is a fascinating convergence of characters, if a creakily symbolic and often bizarrely broad one.

In the varied views each generation holds of that soon-to-be notorious train wreck of American history, Thornton and co-writer Tom Epperson weave an intriguing portrait of a nation in flux.

jayne_mansfields_car_2012_3Once kept firmly on the peripheries of one American firmly, Robert Duvall now sits staunchly at the head of another. He and his Caldwell clan offer an inter-generational embodiment of America: he is the stoic veteran of the First World War, his three sons the wounded warriors of the Second, his grandson and his friends those being summarily summoned for service in Vietnam. “You un-American son of a bitch” is the finest insult Duvall’s patriarch can muster when, on the movie’s opening, he finds his more counter-cultural son has been arrested for protesting this latest war on the main street of their prototypical Alabama town. In the varied views each generation holds of that soon-to-be notorious train wreck of American history, Thornton and co-writer Tom Epperson weave an intriguing portrait of a nation in flux.

Enter the English, whose intrusion is at once the catalyst to the movie’s oft-successful comic and dramatic moments and the death of its grander thematic commentary. That shift in American society—well alluded to in Thornton’s thoughtful musical choices—is itself shifted from centre-stage as the sheer awkwardness of the scenario is instead mined for all it’s worth. It’s an understandable choice of direction, if a somewhat disappointing one given the relative hit-and-miss ratio of Thornton and Epperson’s comedy, which tends to opt for an easy, oddball laugh amidst bouts of heavy, hamfisted drama. That’s not to say it’s without its successes: Thornton may be painting in broad strokes, but the picture he creates is one of recognisable people and relatable pain.

Exploiting his iconic accent with the utmost English enunciation, John Hurt is a suitably symbolic opposite to all things Duvall; they have some exceptional scenes together, the script smartly saving its more complex dialogue for their world-weary exchanges.

jayne_mansfields_car_2012_4Undoubtedly, that’s thanks to the excellent cast that crowds around him here, terrific talent from both sides of the Atlantic—more, almost, than the movie really deserves—helping to hold up the more dubious storytelling choices. Exploiting his iconic accent with the utmost English enunciation, John Hurt is a suitably symbolic opposite to all things Duvall; they have some exceptional scenes together, the script smartly saving its more complex dialogue for their world-weary exchanges. They’re supported by an able selection of descendants either side, from the fraternal triumvirate of Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, and Thornton himself to their adoptive half-siblings in Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connor. For all the script’s failings, for all its uneasy balancing of stark dramatic revelations and brash, almost bawdy comedy, it’s elevated immensely by this enactment, given every chance to overcome its limitations.

And overcome it does, for the most part: while Thornton has a tendency to overestimate his own dramatic poignancy—never more so than in the closing coda, not nearly as resonant an ending as it seems to think itself—there’s a real rawness to certain scenes, the occasional bearing of all in an overwhelming exposure of human frailty. Amidst certain trite directorial choices, be they excessive slow-motion montages or somewhat sappy scoring, he constructs a tale of inter-familial relationships that does, for all its erstwhile easiness, converge to one conclusive whole. And like the eponymous exhibit, at which the respective patriarchs of these two fragmented families first recognise something of themselves in each other, Jayne Mansfield’s Car may be a smashed-up wreck, but it’s one that can’t but be gazed at with awe.

[notification type=”star”]64/100 ~ OKAY. Like the eponymous exhibit, Jayne Mansfield’s Car may be a smashed-up wreck, but it’s one that can’t but be gazed at with awe.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.