Billy Bob Thornton’s Jayne Mansfield’s Car is the director’s return to the big screen since 1999’s All the Pretty Horses, adapted from the Cormack McCarthy novel. Thornton said he was delighted to be back to directing his own material. He has chosen a quirky tragi-comedy set in the American south in the 1960s that is a double portrait of two families, one American, the other British.
It has been twenty years since Naomi Caldwell left her clan in Alabama and ran away to Europe. Jim, the stern pater familias of the Caldwells (Robert Duvall in an angry, anguished performance), has taken out his disappointment and rage on his sons, who have grown up deprived of a parent’s love. The most damaged is Skip (Billy Bob Thornton), a decorated WWII pilot whose body is singed from a plane crash that nearly took his life. His vintage car collection seems to be the only thing that brings him joy. Skip’s brother Carroll (Kevin Bacon) has moved away from his overbearing father and his war experience by becoming the oldest hippie in town. His passion for drugs and rock and roll is an engine for much of the plot. Jimbo (Robert Patrick), the son not scarred by wartime trauma, is the only one who has turned out halfway normal.
As the film opens, Jim receives news of Naomi’s death. Her body is being flown back for burial in Alabama, escorted by her English husband, Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt) and his two children from a previous marriage.
Much of the the film’s early antics stem from the culture clash between the vulgar, brash Americans and the proper, reserved Brits. Fortunately, the film soon steps back from these facile and clichéd comparisons. What starts out as an absurd farce of family dysfunction soon matures into a bittersweet tale of generational conflict and forgiveness. Thornton keeps the multi-layered plot moving along, aided by the superb performances of the ensemble cast. One of the film’s few serious problems is a crucial plot turn that hinges on Robert Duvall’s character accidentally drinking LSD-laced iced tea before going hunting with his formal rival. Thornton follows through to the mishap’s logical conclusion, so that it isn’t merely a gimmick. But there simply isn’t any way to stop it from seeming contrived, and unbelievably, at that.