In his review of “Sling Blade,” the 1996 drama written and directed by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote that if William Faulkner had written “Forrest Gump,” the results might have been something like “Sling Blade.”
Thornton rarely gets behind the camera these days. He prefers to do his acting work and leave. Directing, on the other hand, takes an enormous amount of time.
But Thornton is totally invested in his comedy-drama “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.” Like “Sling Blade,” he writes, directs and plays a principal role. And the Arkansas native’s Southern literature-inspired writer’s voice is discernible from the first scene.
Thornton and his longtime writing partner, Tom Epperson, tell a story featuring a big collection of colorful, mostly Southern folks. Foremost among them is Jim Caldwall, Robert Duvall’s stoic patriarch of Alabama’s Caldwell clan.
Duvall gets to be funny and tragic as Caldwell, a man who’s never been much for speaking his heart. But the old man takes a trip he never imagined he’d make in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.” Duvall is just the actor to make the journey real.
Duvall shares some of the film’s wilder scenes with veteran British thespian John Hurt. Caldwell’s ex-wife ran off with Hurt’s character, Englishman Kingsley Bedford, leaving him and the couple’s four children back home in Alabama for her new life across the pond.
The death of the former Naomi Caldwell unites her American and British families in an uneasy episode of grief. Her wish to be buried in Alabama with “her people” leads to a funeral and interment in the town she left those many years ago.
In Thornton and Epperson’s tale of conflict and reconciliation, many issues are tackled, both personal and political. The movie’s writers must have a lot of stuff they want to get out. Thornton does well to hold the stuffed-to-the gills “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” together as well as he does.
Drawing credible characters is the film’s strongest suit. These people speak with an authenticity that Los Angeles and New York screenwriters can only dream of. And the cast Thornton surrounds himself with inhabit the scenes with natural ease. Even the British characters, or most of them, get comfortable.
Along with Hurt as Kingsley and Duvall as Caldwell, Thornton plays the elder Caldwell’s damaged World War II hero son. A childlike eccentric, soft-spoken Skip doesn’t seem good for much.
Louisiana-born actress Katherine LaNasa slips easily into her role as Donna, Caldwell’s only daughter, a woman who apparently takes after her late mother. Kevin Bacon’s role as another Caldwell son, middle-aged hippie Carroll, takes him a journey as well. Bacon gets to express a righteous Southern soliloquy loaded with irony.
Following some crazy happenings that bring the film into the realm of comic high anxiety, the story splinters before limping to a muted close. But then this is a story about the things that happen along the way, discoveries, changes of mind and heart. The ending is just a formality.