Judge Michael Nazarewycz is looking for a ride out of town.
Torn Apart. Driven Together.
It's barbeque versus bangers and mash! It's Elvis (the King) versus Elizabeth (the Queen)! It's the South versus the British in a Civil-utionary War mash-up for the ages!
Facts of the Case
The year is 1969, and a group of Vietnam War protesters peace-march down Main Street in Morrison, a small Alabama town. Leading the march is Carroll Caldwell (Kevin Bacon, Footloose), much to the disappointment of his father, Jim (Robert Duvall, The Godfather), who served his country proudly in World War I. This conflict of philosophy is temporarily suspended when news arrives of the death of Jim's ex-wife and Carroll's mother. The cancer victim, who had remarried and moved to England, requested in her will that she be buried in Alabama. This brings her widowed husband, Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt, Alien), and his children from a prior marriage, to the States for the service.
Tensions, fueled mostly by Jim, run high when the two families meet, but on the day the Brits are supposed to head back home, Kingsley falls ill and the visitors must stay a few more days. This extra time gives the families a chance to know each other better and explore their deeper feelings on war, love, and father/son relationships.
While the premise of opposing families "coming together" is the conceit, Jayne Mansfield's Car is, at its core, a film about men who cannot let go of war. The problem is we don't know why they can't let go.
Jim was a medic in World War I and now has a fascination with racing to car crash scenes to witness the devastating aftermath. (Remind me never to visit Morrison, by the way—too many car crashes around there.) His being "traumatized by war" is a good place to start, but writer/director/star Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) simply expects us to accept that as the answer, and it isn't good enough. We don't know what happened to him decades prior to make him act this way.
The same approach applies to Thornton's own character, Skip Caldwell (another of Jim's sons), who flew planes for the Navy in World War II. Skip is so obsessed with his naval career that he names his cars after planes and wears his dress whites to his mother's funeral. It's later suggested that he is looking for his father's approval, but it is also suggested that he has some type of psychological issue (which is also not examined). The latter is not only evidenced by general odd behavior, it's also on display when he asks his late mother's British stepdaughter, Camilla Bedford (Frances O'Connor, A.I. Artificial Intelligence), to recite literature to him in her British accent, while naked, so he can masturbate to that.
Skip's brothers, Jimbo (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and Carroll also served in WWII and are no better developed. Jimbo saw no action in the war yet he is their father's favorite (why?), and while Carroll saw action, he came home and became a hippy stoner peacenik (why?) who protests Vietnam because, well, protesting Vietnam is the default go-to for hippy stoner peaceniks. (His overall timeline strains credulity as well.) The Brits are no better. Kingsley is also a WWI vet and his son, Phillip (Ray Stevenson, Thor), is a WWII vet, and they don't get along either, to the point of airing their dirty knickers in front of their host family.
As for the three women in the film (not counting the maid), two of them are promiscuous. It's perfectly fine for a woman to be promiscuous, of course, but at least give us some reason as to why, at least for the married one.
This is what you get throughout the whole film from Billy Bob the Writer: tired facsimiles of characters we have seen in other movies, most of which were done better or at least fleshed out more than here. It's as if Thornton bought a book for first-time writers about creating fictional characters and this is what the book told him to do. He then leaves the rest up to you to flesh out. Billy Bob the Director isn't much better. His technical execution lacks any kind of flow, with odd shot choices, overly lengthy lingering, and a fixation on random slow-motion shots. This two-hour movie would have been better served—for what that's worth—by shaving 20 minutes of uselessness (including a ridiculous sequence where Jim winds up on an accidental acid trip).
Thornton, like many of the other actors in this film, has an impressive resume, but when history revisits Jayne Mansfield's Car, it will be remembered as merely a footnote.
The anamorphic 1080p imagery is sharp, which is a mixed blessing. While it presents the viewer with a great picture—particularly in the darker scenes—it exposes some of the worst lighting choices I've seen in film this year. The crisp picture also exposes the sets. They don't look fake, they just don't look genuine. I kept thinking of historic vacation spots where tourists can walk through rooms "just like folks had back then." It's almost as if the designers tried so hard to get it right that they got it too right. All of the dialogue and ambient noise from the disc's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track are clear and discernible.
There is only one extra (seriously; there aren't even any trailers for other DVDs). It's a 9-minute behind-the-scenes that offers film clips and footage interspersed with actor interviews. It's remarkably vanilla.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ron White, while in limited support, is very good. He plays a retired football player who now owns a car dealership and can't stop talking about the glory days. It's not so much that the standup comic gives a surprisingly nuanced performance (we're not talking Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine here), it's just that he's incredibly genuine in the role, which makes his lines—the funniest in the film—that much funnier. Sure, we've been there/done that with this type of character (see 1988's Everybody's All-American), but at least White injects some fun into it.
Jayne Mansfield's Car is less a study in character and more a collection of character sketches thrown together. For as good as Billy Bob the Writer can be, the film feels like he had a lot of ideas that he hoped would coagulate on-set under the guidance of Billy Bob the Director. That never happens, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers by the end of the film.
Who knew the same car could crash twice? Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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