A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Like "Slingblade," his celebrated feature debut as writer-director, Billy Bob Thornton's "Jayne Mansfield's Car" takes place in the South and has a fine, essentially literary appreciation for the region and its people. But where the earlier film displayed the careful architecture of a well-wrought novel, this new one, with its sprawling array of characters and anecdotal, ramshackle structure, feels more like a collection of interrelated short stories cobbled into an flavorful but ultimately unwieldy narrative.
Notwithstanding that problem, the film offers numerous incidental pleasures, including the performances of two grand old lions of the screen, Robert Duvall and John Hurt. And despite its excessive length, the script (by Thornton and Jim Epperson) evidences two main strands: one concerns the effect of war on three generations of men; the other brings a British family into the milieu of a deep-dyed Southern clan for a display of clashing cultures.
The latter strand gives the film the closest thing it has to a plot. The setting: a small Alabama town in 1969. Jim Caldwell (Duvall), a gnarly paterfamilias who's fascinated by grisly automobile wrecks, has three grown sons of vastly disparate personalities, as well as a daughter, but there's something missing in the picture of his family life. That element is revealed one evening when a phone call brings news that Jim's wife his died in England. Seems that decades before she used to beg him to go traveling with her. When he declined, she went off to England, found a new life and never came back. Now, her British family wants to honor her last wishes by bringing her body back for burial.
Thus do the Caldwells meet the Bedfords. Kingsley Bedford (Hurt), the second husband of Jim's wife, arrives accompanied by his two agreeable but rather colorless grown children, Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O'Connor). "It's just like 'Gone With the Wind!'" marvels one of the Brits when they first see the Caldwells' rural manse. The script's inter-cultural commentary seldom rises above that level, but mostly it takes backseat to the inter-personal differences. Still wounded by his wife's abdication, Jim is initially surly toward his unwanted guests, but it's hard to dislike the gentlemanly Kingsley and his well-mannered kids, so once everyone enjoys a backyard barebque and some frosty beverages, a certain bonhomie develops that eventually allows Jim to discover why his wife left and fashioned a better life with Kingsley.