A distinctly American, humanist drama, one that somewhat makes up in performances of warmth and generosity what it may lack in originality, "Jayne Mansfield's Car," which just enjoyed its World Premiere at the 2012 Berlinale, finds director and star Billy Bob Thornton showing a certain spiritual kinship with fellow director/actors Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford. Off-key directorial choices, and a frustrating lack of narrative and characterisation consistency prevent the film from ever coalescing into something as satisfying as Clint is able to deliver, at his best, and for better or worse, it doesn't have the grander ambitions of a Redford effort, but the films of all three, are to a certain degree built as temples to the performances, sometimes to a fault. But that approach is somewhat justified when the performances are as unshowily enjoyable as they are here. It is not a panacea for all the film's flaws, but the actors' conviction elevates, or at least distracts from the insubstantial plotting and occasionally clunky dialogue.
Detailing rifts and reconciliations, generational divides and political face-offs, the 1969 Alabama-set film follows a few tumultuous days in the lives of rich WWI veteran and patriarch Jim (Robert Duvall), his sons (Robert Patrick, Kevin Bacon, Thornton himself) and daughter (Katherine LaNasa), and their respective families, in the wake of the death of their mother, Jim's ex-wife, Naomi. She died in England, and now Kingsley (John Hurt) the husband who stole her away from Jim all those years ago, is bringing her body back for burial, in accordance with her wishes, with his own grown up son (Ray Stevenson) and daughter (Frances O'Connor) in tow. If this sounds confusingly overpopulated, it untangles itself fairly quickly, thanks to deft handling of the introductions of each of the characters. That this ensemble then manages to colour in those quick sketches without straying outside the lines, with seemingly no one person treading on any other's performance to big up their own, is one of the chief pleasures of watching the film.
Because ordinarily with a cast of this many characters, where all have subplots with mini-dramas of their own, there is a point where as a viewer one loses interest in one of them, in favour of another. But here you rarely get that sense of disappointment when the action cuts from one sibling's strand to another's (and if perhaps the youngest of the three generations earns the least of our interest or attention, they also get the least screentime). This is almost to be expected when you pack your cast with such reliable actors' actors as Duvall, Hurt, Bacon, and even Thornton. But Robert Patrick is given a long-overdue biggish role here too, while mostly TV actress Katherine LaNasa turns in a similarly winning performance as the ex-beauty queen daughter, married to a boorish husband, and mother to two girls, who embarks on an extra-marital flirtation with Ray Stevenson. Stevenson himself, meanwhile, seems to relish what feels like a fairly atypical role; usually the hardman, and, perhaps just in this writer's mind, usually oiled and stripped to the waist, here he plays entirely contrary to that image, his bulk be-suited, his vowels clipped and plummy, his emotions (not quite entirely) repressed. Rounding out the impressive cast is British actress Frances O'Connor who somehow manages to create something memorable out of a role that consists almost entirely of reacting to the outlandish suggestions of Thornton's slightly simple Skip.
But these pleasures aside, soon enough the chickens come home to roost as far as the overstretched narrative is concerned, and in its final third the film resorts to a few cheap tricks to resolve the story's more pressing questions. And so the deus-ex-machina device of a certain spiked drink feels unearned, especially when a single dose of acid seems to heal the kind of familial discontents that have brewed and festered for decades. Similarly Thornton's rather overfamiliar savant/naif character -- perhaps the familiarity can be forgiven because a) he's also directing and b) he does it so damn well -- tacks much closer to the "savant" side of his nature in these last scenes, as he usefully becomes a vessel to deliver unadorned, childlike truths that urge longstanding issues toward rather hasty resolution.
But perhaps the biggest directorial misstep is in the choice of final scene. The film is already tonally erratic, sometimes to the point of clumsiness, but having essentially closed out the story on a big, broad, warm note that feels of a mood with what has gone before, we fade unexpectedly back up from black again to an orphaned single epilogue scene. Now, we don't deny the narrative appropriateness of what happens in this scene, just its placement, because it not only does it play out in a minor key that is tonally dissonant with the scene immediately preceding, but it seems, cynically, placed exactly there in order to lend the film a claim at deeper political resonance than it ever actually earns. And the attempt to refocus our attention away from where it has been directed for the preceding hour-and-a-half, is counter productive anyway, as all it really does is remind us that despite this late grab for grandiosity, the film is slight.
Even the title reminds us of this slightness. Jim, the irascible, intractable, prejudiced father of the family has a bizarre and ghoulish hobby, apparently based on Thornton's own father's quirk, involving tracking police scanners and visiting the scenes of car crashes. At one of these, he studies the twisted corpse of a recent accident victim and we move into slo mo as the music crescendos: for a moment it is as though Thornton is trying to say something profound about the nature of collision, or the American relationship with the automobile, or the catharsis to be gained from constantly exposing oneself to death. But then the scene ends and we revert to the comedy of manners and clashing cultures that is the film's natural element for the majority of its running time. Same with the titular car; in a scene signalling a kind of rapprochement between Jim and Kingsley, they go to look at the car Jayne Mansfield famously died in, as it does a kind of freakshow tour around the region. But the point of the scene escapes us, and again, there is no real conclusion to be drawn from Jim's compulsion: slightly too little is made of it for us to understand its bearing on the arc of the story, but slightly too much for us to not ask those questions.
A Russian/American co-production, and Thornton's first fiction feature as director in over a decade, "Jayne Mansfield's Car" feels curiously old-fashioned and has none of the focus and discipline that made his debut "Sling Blade" such an immediate, Oscar-winning success. But as a nearly stageplay-like showcase for some extremely watchable actors, it is diverting enough to almost compensate for its awkwardness in other areas. Almost. [B-]