‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’ at the Fringe of the Family

[14 February 2014]

By J.C. Macek III

With the cast the film Jayne Mansfield’s Car sports, one might consider this movie to be a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” player’s dream come true. Bacon is part of a large ensemble cast that also includes Robert Patrick, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Ray Stevenson, Ron White, Frances O’Connor, Katherine LaNasa, Shawnee Smith and the film’s director, Billy Bob Thornton. With this many recognizeable Jayne Mansfield’s Car might just serve as something of a shorthand to connect Bacon with just about any actor in any film, within well less than six degrees.

The fact that the film was directed by Thornton is sure to pique the interest of just about anyone who has seen a small film called Sling Blade (mmm-hmmm) for which Thornton received many awards and nominations. While Jayne Mansfield’s Car is not his second film (he also directed All the Pretty Horses and Daddy and Them in 2000 and 2001, respectively), this is his first directed film in well over a decade and his care and interest in the directing and the writing (a task he shared with Tom Epperson) shows in most every scene.

In spite of the title, this film is not a biography of the famous actress (or, for that matter, her car). Instead, Jayne Mansfield’s Car is the tale of the Caldwell family, the siblings, played by Thornton, Bacon, Patrick and LaNasa all living with or near the Caldwell patriarch played by Robert Duvall. When the Caldwells receive the call that the former Mrs. Caldwell (mother of the siblings) has passed away, they are faced with the visit form her new family who travel to Alabama from England to bury the unseen character.

The influence of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is clear on this film, set in 1969, but serves as a mere McGuffin to bring together the English Bedford family (led by Hurt, who is supported by his children Stevenson and O’Connor) with the Alabama Caldwells. However the character’s specter does hang over most scenes with the bitter and death-obsessed Duvall attempting to make nice with his ostensible rival Hurt, well after his late ex-wife left him for the other man.

Still, this is only one of many situations portrayed in Jayne Mansfield’s Car, as these strangers become erstwhile friends and even temporary family. Thornton’s character Skip becomes infatuated with his (theoretical) step-sister in O’Connor’s Camilla, while sexual tension crackles between Stevenson’s Phillip and LaNasa’s Donna. Bacon’s character of Carroll has turned his back on his military past and has become a full-blown drug-using and war-opposing hippie (much to his father’s dismay) and Patrick’s character of Jimbo laments the fact that he is the only brother who never went to war for his country.

This may seem to be an awful lot to throw at the audience and it truly is, but this is only the tip of the iceberg that is Jayne Mansfield’s Car… and we haven’t even gotten to the part about the title car yet. Herein lies the major flaw in this film. For such a short period of time (the entire screenplay covers less than a week), there is enough story here to fill out a mini-series and the condensation thereof into a film that clocks in at just over two hours isn’t always a seamless exercise.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car is dramatic and funny and entertaining in many parts, but the jigsaw puzzle doesn’t always flow from piece to piece. For all of Thornton’s directing skill, the overall film can be episodic and loses focus repeatedly to the point that the focus seems to shift do each vignette as opposed to one unified story. In this way, Car is a lot like life… but not necessarily much like most movies out there.

None of this is to say that Jayne Mansfield’s Car sums up to be a bad film. While it shows its cracks and flaws, it is also very hard to look away from. Much of this has to do with the talented actors who take the inconsistent screenplay and run with it to the point that each of their varied (short) arcs are filled with pathos. Bacon, in particular, gives a believable and emotional performance as Carroll whose rebellion is directly juxtaposed with Thornton’s own Skip, who still wears his Navy Whites to special occasions. O’Connor is great as the wide-eyed, but not quite innocent, sexy British import and Ron White is very entertaining as the abrasive, obnoxious, fast talking car salesman that somehow managed to marry LaNasa’s Donna.

The big draw is the tense new relationship between Duvall and Hurt, who are on very opposite sides of very many things. While they initially seem to have nothing in common, their commonalities make the entire proceedings more believable and rich, between the mumbled moments and the friendly back-slapping. It’s just too bad that this arc is not more central, or, at least, is not diluted by the many competing stories that weigh down the second half.

For all the stars in the feature, the DVD is decidedly light on the extras. A well-done, but brief documentary, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car: Behind the Scenes” is the sole bonus feature on a disc that could have done with a commentary from its acclaimed director. That said, the feature itself, while imperfect, is enjoyable, if often convoluted, and contains some excellent acting and quality moments both in and out of the car. The title car (or replica thereof) does appear in the film as something of a garish tourist attraction, but the actress herself does not (surely much to the chagrin of those eager players of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/179006-jayne-mansfields-car/