Review: JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Love and war can make some strange and otherwise unlikely bedfellows, but these polar opposites also lie on a fine line between unity and discord. That seems to be the ideology behind Billy Bob Thornton’s directorial work since 2001’s Daddy and Them. Thornton, who collaborates with screenwriter Tom Epperson on Jayne Mansfield’s Car, has produced a film with outstanding performances and some breathtaking cinematic moments, but with some messy, nearly aimless, and trivial ones as well.  Though Thornton’s latest effort as a director is flawed and could be viewed as a disappointment, audiences should not rule this film out as a total loss. There is enough to admire in Thornton’s down-home, nitty-gritty film about the casualties of war and the how the aftermath affects the families at home.

The Caldwell family of Alabama has a father and three brothers who have served in two different wars and have both the physical and emotional scars to prove it. Their latest familial casualty doesn’t come at the hands of a foreign enemy, though. In 1969, their estranged and free spirited matriarch Naomi (Tippi Hedren) has sadly passed away in Europe and her final wish is to be buried back at home. Accompanying Naomi’s body is her new family from England, the Bedfords, who awkwardly and reluctantly respect her wishes. In doing so they are forced to even more awkwardly connect and bond with the Caldwells who have a difficult time hiding their dysfunctional issues.

While the film has a slightly muddled script and a pace that often stumbles and lumbers along, the performances by the superb cast certainly engage, and often enthrall. Robert Duvall is perfectly cast as Jim Caldwell, the cold and hardened patriarch who either forgot or never really knew how to express his love for his family. John Hurt stars as Kingsley Bedford, the sometimes tough, but well mannered widow of Naomi. Culture clashes are obvious between the two families, but the experiences they share as veterans of war and the love they shared for Naomi draw them closer.

I briefly spoke with Billy Bob Thornton on the red carpet at the 2012 Austin Film Festival screening of the film. I asked him what inspired him and Tom Epperson to write the film. He stated, “I had this idea for a while, for a few years. I always love culture clashes in movies. I wanted to do a movie about how tragedy and war affect different generations and how it manifests itself in families.” Through some highly effective dramatic scenes and some comedic ones as well, Thornton and Epperson present a genuine and authentic realization of these ideas and concepts.

Billy Bob not only writes and directs here, but also stars as Skip Caldwell, another war veteran who displays the most psychological trauma of war. His character acts lost, withdrawn and almost childlike.  Thornton offers a fine performance as Skip, but the writing and development of the character is often too awkward and bizarre, making it difficult for audiences to form a real connection with this person.  That inaccessibility may have been part of Thornton and Epperson’s point, but I feel that the character needed a tad more approachability.

The film also features superb acting work by Kevin Bacon who portrays the youngest Caldwell, Carroll, Robert Patrick as the eldest Caldwell, Jimbo, and Katharine LaNasa as the only daughter Donna.  As for the rest of the Bedfords, Ray Stevenson stars as son Phillip and the lovely and captivating Frances O’Connor as Camilla.

I feel that this movie will have a polarizing effect on both audiences and critics. I can definitely see how the writing and pacing issues will turn off some viewers. Nevertheless, I found enough to admire within this interesting piece to recommend that people at least give this movie a chance with a rental. This latest work by Billy Bob Thornton may not be as satisfying as Sling Blade, but it is still a worthy effort from a talented filmmaker.  I asked Thornton what advice he has for aspiring writers wanting to express themselves. He replied, “If you want to be a real writer and artist, write what you know about first.” Thornton obviously knows the South and its personalities quite well. There’s no denying the charm and personality of this film.

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Billy Bob Thornton at the 2013 Austin Film Festival

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