Billy Bob Thornton returns to filmmaking with ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’

A massive cast, led by co-writer/director Billy Bob Thornton (towards the right), makes up the messy but thrilling "Jayne Mansfield's Car." Credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment
A massive cast, led by co-writer/director Billy Bob Thornton (second from right), makes up the messy but thrilling “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.”
Credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment

‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Duvall
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

It’s been 12 years since Billy Bob Thornton last directed a film, namely 2001’s largely ignored “Daddy and Them.” Since then a lot has changed: One of our era’s finest actors, he’s gone from welcome movie staple to an only occasional presence, in part due to an obviously waning interest in both movies and being nice during interviews. Justly lauded though his acting may be, his real passion is music. Honestly he can’t be faulted for that, although it’s nice to see him both in front of and behind the camera again with “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” a most confounding film in ways both productive and less so.

Written with his usual partner, Tom Epperson, this ensemble film starts off innocently. Set in 1969 Alabama, it hangs with the massive Caldwell clan, lorded over by patriarch Jim (Robert Duvall) and filled out by button-up Jim Jr. (Robert Patrick), aging hippie Carroll (Kevin Bacon) and suspiciously quiet Skip (Thornton). News comes that their mother, who walked out on them to marry an Englishman, Kingsley (John Hurt), has died. The body is to return to America accompanied by her other family, meaning the two broods, who’ve avoided each other for so long, suddenly have to hang.

Set over a series of days, over picnics and nights sitting around, plus the inevitable funeral, it initially seems to be a nice party movie, wrangling up a massive pile of talented stars and letting them just bounce off eachother. That describes the first half-hour, at which point it all of a sudden goes… strange. For instance, what appeared to be a low-key, hesitant courtship between Skip and Kingsley’s daughter Camilla (Frances O’Connor) suddenly reveals first that Skip is a whole mess of a lot weirder (read: kinkier) than was assumed. Then it turns out Camilla isn’t so restrained either.

The scenes between Skip and Camilla are the film’s high points, thrilling in their leftfield turns that still serve to deepen and enrich two characters who keep surprising us. (For what it’s worth, Thornton also winds up rocking cinema’s arguable most inventive “O” face.) There are plenty other out-there bits, some inspired, others genuinely too far afield. (A scene involving Skip greeting his father shirtless, with his medals pinned to his flesh, probably read better on paper.)

The film’s unwieldiness isn’t a liability, though. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to say about its most dominant theme, namely war and its impact on three generations, but that’s a good thing — it belies a real curiosity. Most of the men have served, and there’s vast disagreements among them, particularly between the grouchy, condescending old-timers and their more conflicted, sometimes fragile sons. Even with the occasional speechifying, the script refrains from offering a single message, interested instead in watching characters bicker. “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” isn’t slick, and sometimes crazy, but personality goes a long way, particularly one that needs to be heard from more.


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