Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton, respectively a titan and a reliably keen practitioner of American film acting, nearly elevate the ensemble Southern family dramedy Jayne Mansfield’s Car into transcending its doggedly cutesy and familiar instincts. As Jim Caldwell, remote patriarch of a well-to-do clan in a 1969 Alabama town, Duvall thickly applies a deep Dixie accent to the guttural grumblings of his angry-dad mode, and now past 80, he still performs silence as well as anyone working in movies. Here, Jim’s determination to avoid eye contact with his two drifting sons, Navy vet Skip (Thornton), damaged since his near-death in a hospital fire, and middle-aged hippie freak Carroll (Kevin Bacon), speaks louder than his rants against carpetbagger politicians, communist aggression, or drug use. Monitoring his police radio so he can drive off to rubberneck at car wrecks, Jim is saddled with a baroque death obsession that feels ladled on for color, but even as digital blood drips onto his bald pate as he stares up at a corpse dangling from an upended vehicle, Duvall’s thousand-yard stare almost makes you believe this mania is the key to his soul.
Thornton similarly finds persuasive moments in his eccentric role, an isolated man with three beloved sports cars, self-deprecating instincts, and a strategically revealed Big Secret (related, as all the male traumas in the scenario are, to wartime scars and paternal disappointment), but as this is his return to feature-film directing after more than a decade, he and co-writer Tom Epperson bear the blame for the lumbering plot’s contrivances. The body of Jim’s ex-wife is brought home for burial by her British second husband, Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), and his adult children (Ray Stevenson, Frances O’Connor), to the initial chagrin of grudge-holding Jim and his sole straight-arrow offspring (Robert Patrick). As the two wary families circle each other around the funeral bier, there’s obvious culture-clash humor (“I feel as though I’m swimming in treacle,” moans a moist Hurt before fainting in the heat) before a fevered Anglophilia is aroused in the Caldwells, with Jim’s bored, married daughter (a sassy Katherine LaNasa) and Skip lusting after the Bedford siblings, while their fathers bond over their nostalgic, conservative worldviews.
For all the attempted peculiarities of the script (it’s the kind of tale where Skip’s tryst with his transatlantic paramour consists of jerking off while listening to her recite Tennyson), Thornton’s visual style tends toward blandness, despite indulging in slow motion and montages. And the third act is littered with on-the-nose pronouncements like, after a viewing of the titular celebrity death car, “There’s a crash waiting for all of us,” along with an angry adult son’s “I spent my whole childhood trying to be just like you.” (Hitting a no less tiresome note of lysergic comic relief, spiking Grandpa’s hunting-trip iced tea with acid leads Jim into tripping back to the Great War.) Most frustratingly, Jayne Mansfield’s Car ends on a pair of subversive notes: a slapstick punch that undercuts a learning-and-growing moment, and an epilogue that suggests the father-son struggles of the Caldwells are in no way resolved or resolvable. But they come too late to make anything more of this mannered period patchwork.