Despite the impressive cast and generally positive word of mouth, I still sat down to Billy Bob Thornton's Jayne Mansfield's Car wondering, "Does anybody really need another nostalgic family comedy/drama? What could Thornton possibly have to add to this well-worn genre?"
I'm still pretty sure that the answer to my first question is, "Probably not," though everyone else's mileage may vary. That said, there is a great deal of pleasure to be found in Thornton's meandering, good-natured yarn about a fractured family in the Vietnam War-era South. It touches on most of the expected issues - generational conflict, drug experimentation, Southern conservatism - but Thornton explores them with subtle wit and welcome sincerity. It also helps that his characters are all complex, unique and fully realized, thanks in part to near-perfect performances across the board.
Yes, the film is too long and drags out certain scenes to what seems like forever, but in a strange way, that's part of its charm. The loose structure fits the setting well, as almost nobody in Thornton's South seems rushed or particularly concerned with time.
The film concerns two families who are united after the death of a mutual loved one. The loved one in question is Jim Caldwell's (Robert Duvall) ex-wife, who left him years ago to move to Britain, where she eventually married Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt). Caldwell, who is generally grumpy anyway, still resents her, and by extension, Bedford as well.
And so the two men finally meet each other for the funeral in Alabama, each with several generations of family members in tow. Kevin Bacon and Billy Bob Thornton play the two most interesting ones, with Bacon as a veteran turned hippie anti-war activist, and Thornton as another veteran whose mental trauma has all but incapacitated him. Accompanying them are Bacon's son, their brother Jimbo (Robert Patrick), his wife and son, their unhappily married sister, and Bedford's son and daughter.
It's quite a group, and it's to the cast's credit that all of them are easy to spend time with. The real standouts are Duvall and Thornton, each of whom takes what could have been a straightforward role (grumpy old man, traumatized vet) and infuses it with a sense of mystery and genuine emotion. Duvall, in particular, is at the top of his game, never exaggerating his character's quirky tics for comic effect and almost effortlessly communicating Caldwell's humanity and weakness without resorting to cliché.
Relationships are established, strained, mended, and occasionally broken, but the film rarely over-sentimentalizes the material or strays into melodrama. As a result, while it may not be as emotionally or intellectually hard-hitting as Thornton perhaps intended, Jayne Mansfield's Car works quite well as a breezy, sometimes eccentric, ensemble character study. It's a perfect film for a lazy summer day.