The best thing one can say about "Jayne Mansfield's Car," Billy Bob Thornton's loopy family drama about a group of eccentric American southerners in 1969, is that it's not quite as bad as it looks. A far cry from "Sling Blade," the crowning achievement of Thornton's otherwise non-career as a filmmaker, this tame exercise never quite jives and sometimes just bombs with one-note melodrama, but always maintains Thornton's conviction about the material.
Set in Morrison, Ala., "Jayne Mansfield's Car" follows a pair of families brought into unlikely union by a single offscreen death. Aging car-crash investigator Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) learns that his estranged ex-wife has died of cancer, and her newer U.K. relatives plan to respect her wishes by returning to her hometown for the funeral. The timing couldn't be worse: Jim already must deal with existing tensions between his grown sons, including stoner anti-war activist Carroll (Kevin Spacey) and his war-scarred brother Skip (Thornton). Their unexpected British guests are led by the whiny Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), his levelheaded son Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and peppy daughter Camilla (Frances O'Connor), each of whom bears the mark of a thinly conceived ensemble piece that finds mismatched characters learning to get along under unlikely circumstances.
As they slowly get acquainted while working out their own internal problems, it quickly becomes clear that Thornton has little use for them. The period setting barely serves a purpose aside from providing a means of probing generational division, with war veterans coming to blows over a less patriotic younger generation. On the whole, however, "Jayne Mansfield's Car" never feels like more than an erratic assemblage of uninspired events.
The movie stays afloat mainly due to its game cast, particularly Duvall and Thornton himself, both playing grumpy men haunted by their combat histories and unable to move on with their lives. Spacey and O'Connor make the best of underwritten parts, but can never transcend the scenario's generally static quality.
At the same time, by not pushing too hard, Thornton delivers a mostly sunny, inoffensive story that has a few amusing subplots, including the first time Duvall has been asked to play a character on acid. (Spoiler alert? Or the main reason anyone will remember this movie further down the line?) Other scenes can only come across like absurd camp, such as the bit that finds Camilla indulging Skip's odd fantasy by bouncing up and down in the nude and reciting verse while he openly masturbates a few feet away, his face contorted in a grotesque orgasmic display. Yes, this happens.
At another point in their baffling courtship, the reclusive Skip shows Camilla his automobile collection. "You're like a kid when you talk about these things," she says, but could have addressed any of the other main players the same way. Collectively, they're quite the childish bunch, suffering from rage issues and simplistic neuroses repeated ad infinitum.
However, a thoughtful final scene that might belong in a better movie suggests that Thornton intended a sharper reflection of place and time than he could possibly have achieved with a sitcom-ready formula. The amorphous plot doesn't fit Thornton's low-key aims, including the titular vehicle. Mansfield's car surfaces at a traveling museum late in the game, providing a cheap metaphor for a movie with the same amount of depth. "The fact of the matter is," Hurt asserts, "we all have a crash awaiting us." On a constant road to nowhere, "Jayne Mansfield's Car" seals its fate with that spot-on self-indictment, but still manages to enjoy the ride.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The star-studded cast and competent production values mean that "Jayne Mansfield's Car" could wind up with a theatrical distributor. However, even with its performances and off-kilter entertainment value, it's readymade for VOD success.