Despite an assemblage of some of the greatest working actors today, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, starring, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, is one of the most boring and tedious efforts in recent memory. In every vein it epitomizes the definition of the term: the characters are collectively uninteresting, underdeveloped or overwrought, the pacing mundane and unfocused and the dialogue so overstuffed and suffocating that it loses all meaning, a fate that the film as a whole suffers. There are glimpses of an interesting character study/dysfunctional family dynamic film buried somewhere within this period drama, but as it stands it’s insufferably valueless.
Now let me make one thing perfectly clear, of all the trifling buzz words that so many movie patrons singularly label a film, among those I find to be the most irksome is the label of “boring,” and I avoid its use whenever possible. I’ve seen every manner of film branded with the b-word, be it confidently paced thrillers, both over and under-blown action fare, comedies, dramas and everything in between. It’s a word counted amidst the most unsubstantiated of identifiers – one flippantly used by those who usually have no grasp on what they saw or have no interest to delve further and find out. And I state this with the unshakable belief that opinion always has its place – always. Simply put, in this case it’s unavoidably apt, but I digress.
The film’s namesake comes from the death car shared by 1950’s screen and stage actress Jayne Mansfield and two passengers after an accident in 1967 which famously left the roof of the vehicle sheared off; leaving rumours the starlet had been gruesomely decapitated. The importance of this title however, is somewhat mystifying. The matriarch of the Caldwell family (played by the great Robert Duvall) possessing a somewhat disturbing fetish for venturing to recent car accidents and the arrival of Mansfield’s twisted vehicle at their Alabama town as part of a sideshow of sorts is about the extent that the title holds bearing on the actual plot. Perhaps if those points carried some underlying value that mirrored or enhanced the rest of the film it could be forgiven, even championed, but alas Jayne Mansfield’s Car is too focused on playing all its cards at once, completely ignoring the long game.
Coupled with this Crash-esque plot point are themes about the horrors and futility of war, conflicts born between family members who have seen action of the battlefield and those who have not, drug use, coming to terms with death, mending bridges, weird sexual desires and car porn. All of this is congealed with oft seen maladjusted family tropes with no uniting theme to be found. Aside from summing up that war is bad and that you can find a connection with someone you thought was lost or could never be, Jayne Mansfield’s Car is 120 minutes of talking with about 30 minutes of actual content. Rarely have characters chatted so continuously with so little of meaning to offer.
I briefly mentioned the pedigree of the cast, and while it stands as one of the most impressive ever assembled, it’s so infuriating to see them given so little to do. Duvall plays father to three grown sons: the war vet turned hippie Carroll (Kevin Bacon), the scarred but promiscuous Skip (Thornton) and the meek but angry Jimbo (Robert Patrick). They receive a message that their long gone mother has passed away, having divorced Jim and moved to England where she married Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt). With his two children (Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connor), Kingsley makes the journey to America for the funeral, with the three inevitably staying at the Caldwell estate. I’m sure you can guess the kind of hijinks that ensue and the relationships, that grow so I won’t bore you with what you can surmise on your own.
If all the subplots and side characters didn’t add enough bloat, a number of the key players seem a tad off, particularly Duvall, who at times seems tired and uninterested in the film of which he’s a part. That is of course when he’s not tripping balls after accidentally ingesting LSD and stumbling about the woods like a madman. So too at times (though less so) are Bacon and Thornton, who each have a chance for a heartfelt confession to their emotionally distant father about how they long for affection or whatnot. Part of this fault lies with the screenplay, but their delivery in what I suppose are meant to be emotional climaxes does it no service.
Amidst all the clutter and generally unlikeable characters, there are three segments of Jayne Mansfield’s Car that I genuinely enjoyed. The first is a confession by Thornton about his time in service as a pilot to the O’Connor’s Camilla, with whom he shares affection. Though well realized in an isolated sense, it really has no bearing on anything beyond that scene, though the scene I did enjoy.
The second is the growing of another relationship, this time between Phillip Bedford and the wife of another Caldwell (Tippi Hedren), which bubbles with sexual tension and has an energy missing from so many other dynamics. The third and final, coming right before the end credits, is an easy exchange between the three brothers as they share beers and a joint. It’s parts like this that demonstrate how unforgivably messy so many other parts of this melodrama really are.
With less actual dialogue, fewer characters, a trimmer runtime and the elimination of the unnecessarily bizarre subplots, Jayne Mansfield’s Car could hold out hope of being a good, if still messy, film. Sometimes though, messy films can be among the most memorable as long as the mess has a clear sense of direction, something to which (on this occasion at least) Thornton seems unwilling to commit.