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09/26/2013

Thornton's 'Car' gets flat, tired

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Billy Bob Thornton, left, and Kevin Bacon as conflicted brothers. (Anchor Bay Films)
Leave it to Billy Bob Thornton, perhaps the quirkiest of the quirky when it comes to actors and filmmakers, to assemble a notable group of A-list or former A-list actors to slog through an idea that Thornton says was in his head “for quite some time.” 

Rational reasoning, and, I’m guessing, a good number of movie studio decision makers would vote to leave this idea of a family patriarch obsessed with visiting gruesome car crashes on the highway outside of a small town in Thornton’s head.

Not Billy Bob, though.  After all, this is the guy who has portrayed everything from a fiddle-playing Davy Crockett (The Alamo) to implement-wielding, lovable killer Karl Childers (Sling Blade).

There’s nothing wrong with bringing odd or even severely flawed characters to the screen.  The problem with Jayne Mansfield’s Car, co-written by Thornton and former collaborator Tom Epperson (One False Move), co-starring Thornton and directed by Thornton, is that the paper-thin plot stalls in neutral much of the time.

Set in small-town Alabama in 1969 while this country’s hippie movement embraced free love at the same time the USA was divided over the Vietnam War, Jayne Mansfield’s Car spins its creative wheels trying to say something important about families torn apart emotionally yet somehow still bonded together, about fathers and sons and, oddly enough, about the fatal car crash that cut short the life of movie star Jayne Mansfield in 1967.

Thornton’s cast list is impressive.   Oscar winner Robert Duvall, who played Thornton’s conflicted father in Sling Blade, is back as Thornton’s tight-lipped, conflicted dad again here.  Although Thornton, Kevin Bacon and Robert Patrick portray play middle-aged siblings all going a little middle-age crazy, this family dynamic is about as far removed from the old TV sitcom “My Three Sons” as one can imagine.

Bacon takes on the role of Carroll, the aged hippie of the family, and looks more than a little silly in long hair leading a lethargic small-town Vietnam War protest parade.  Patrick, probably forever typecast as robot T-1000 in Terminator 2:  Judgment Day, is Jimbo, tarnished by both his brothers’ reps as World War II heroes.   Skip (Thornton), a pilot in the WWII, bears scars – emotional and otherwise – that have left him stuck in child mode in many ways.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car suffers no lack of grist for the dramatic mill.  And that’s where Thornton and Epperson eventually begin to build at least flickers of decent dramatic fire.  Papa Duvall’s ex, who long ago ran off to England and never returned, has died.  Her widower (John Hurt) and family have accompanied the body back to Alabama for burial.

As Duvall and Hurt, two formidable actors, spar verbally with very little to say to each other, the other members of this oddball household engage in various degrees of flirtation and coupling, dope smoking and generational bonding.

Don’t expect anything as gripping as Sling Blade.  For me, though, Thornton is one of those filmmakers who pushes the envelope fearlessly.    And he has assembled some really good actors and actresses around him.  It’s just that this project lacks the emotional punch – the Thornton kick in the gut, if you will – of some of his earlier work.

As offbeat as Jayne Mansfield’s Car is onscreen, it is almost as odd off.  Thornton’s semi-failed experiment in hard-hitting family melodrama just opened in a few movie houses on Sept. 13 (appropriately enough, Friday the 13th).

Odder still, Jayne Mansfield’s Car parallel parked in several cable and satellite systems’ On Demand queues two weeks prior to the movie-house release.

That’s where you can find it; lurking and bizarrely interesting, like accident victims on the highway just outside the city limits.

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MPAA rating:  R (profanity, sexual content, nudity, drug use, bloody images)

Running time:  122 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  2 (out of 4)

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