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Movie review: ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’

Posted 4:53pm on Thursday, Sep. 12, 2013

R (strong language, sexual content, nudity, drug use, bloody images); 122 min.

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.

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. But it’s a welcome return for one of the cinema’s few regional voices.

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 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.

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.

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.

Her English family — her widowed husband (John Hurt) and his brooding son (Ray Stevenson) and wild daughter Camilla (Frances O’Connor) — accompany the body.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car — the title comes from the vehicle the blonde bombshell actress was killed in — is melodramatic hokum, with just enough false moments to stagger the viewer. But this tale of generations fumbling to connect 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.

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— Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers

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