Billy Bob Thornton was an actor who used his distinctive voice as a screenwriter to kick-start his movie career. But as the acting jobs piled up, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Sling Blade” and “A Family Thing” gave up writing and directing, content to be a hired-gun actor in demand for all manner of faintly menacing Southern eccentrics.
“Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” his first co-writing / directing job in more than a decade, is full of just the sort of characters Thornton has made his screen trademark — menacing Southern eccentrics. It’s too long and wildly uneven. And the longer it goes on, the more uneven and oddball it seems. But it’s a welcome return for one of the cinema’s few regional voices and an entertaining jumble of ideas, themes and performances.
In 1969 Morrison, Ala., the Caldwells are a family divided. Conservative patriarch Jim (Robert Duvall) lords over the family’s antebellum estate, where his word is the law. A World War I vet and a bit of a brute, he has no patience for his World War II vet son Carroll (Kevin Bacon) — who has, in his 40s, gone “hippie” and leads the tiny protests against the Vietnam War.
Another son, Jimbo (Robert Patrick), compensates for his lack of combat experience by echoing his daddy’s opinions in most everything.
But Skip (Billy Bob Thornton), like Carroll, a veteran of WWII, seems to share Carroll’s point of view about the “pointless” war now going on. He’s a bit touched, driving his collection of sports cars too fast, breaking out his old Navy whites a bit too often.
And they’re all tested when their long-absent mom, who ran off to England and married a Brit, dies. She wanted to be buried at home. Even Jim, whom she ran out on, softens.
“Lord ‘a mercy, she deserves to be buried with her people. Don’t matter what she done to us.”
Her English family — her widowed husband (John Hurt), his brooding son (Ray Stevenson) and wild daughter Camilla (Frances O’Connor) — accompany the body. And Donna (Katherine LaNasa), the uninhibited former Miss Alabama member of the Caldwell clan, rolls in as well.
Thornton and longtime co-writer Tom Epperson have a rich collection of characters to pair off in all sorts of dramatic, tragic, sexual and political debates. Skip is smitten with Camilla’s accent, and she can’t get over how “random” his thoughts are and how much the plantation is “like ‘Gone With the Wind.'”
Drugs and the draft menace faced by the next generation of Caldwells — wayward teens — are aired. The kinkiness of the uninhibited Southern aristocracy is hurled against repressed Englishness, the scars of war that live on long after combat and Southern Gothic eccentricities all share screen time in this drama, which veers between amusing and darkly-touching, hitting every troubling emotion in between.
But Thornton allows so many grace notes in — poetic touches such as when Skip reveals that it’s not “unpleasant memories” that keep veterans from talking about combat — it’s a fact that, “Nobody wants to hear it.”
And the performances make up for some of the film’s willful pursuit of the sordid, the over-familiar (war protests) and the overripe.
“Jayne Mansfield’s Car” — the title comes from the vehicle the blond bombshell actress was killed in, a vehicle that toured fairs and sideshows for years afterward — is melodramatic hokum, with just enough false moments to stagger the viewer. But this tale of generations fumbling to connect, of old rivals bonding over shared experience and of families that feud and endure, has such a distinct voice and tone that you almost wish the acting work would dry up enough for Thornton to let his freak-film flag fly more often. Whatever his other quirks, the man has an ear.
JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR
Cast: Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton, written by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton. An Anchor Bay release.
Running time: 2:02
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content, nudity, drug use and some bloody images