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Inventing the Abbotts

Rated R, 106 min. Directed by Pat O'Connor. Starring Liv Tyler, Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Joanna Going, Kathy Baker, Will Patton, Barbara Williams.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 4, 1997

For Jacey Holt (Crudup), who lives with his widowed mother (Baker) and his younger brother Doug (Phoenix) in the fictional town of Haley, Illinois during the late Fifties, the Abbott family looms large. With the Abbotts' ostentatious wealth, their three nubile daughters, and Jacey's smoldering resentment over his belief that the senior Abbott generation hoodwinked his parents out of the Holt family's proper social and financial standing, the Abbott family has a symbolic significance for Jacey that dominates his world view. Early in the movie, which is based on a Sue Miller short story, we're told that if the Abbotts had not existed, Jacey would have had to invent them. Actually, what comes closer to describing Jacey's vindictive strategy for dealing with the perceived injustice is something that might be called “nailing the Abbotts.” In turn, he sullies each of the daughters, evening the score with absolutely no regard for the consequences to the individual Abbott girls. Not that each of the girls, in her own way, wasn't a willing participant… it's just that it's the late Fifties and there are… um, well… more overt “consequences” in these situations for girls than for boys. But this is the Holt boys' story, and that may explain why all the film's other characters are so shallowly drawn. Everyone in this story is a mere foil for Jacey and Brad's struggle with class identity and adolescent confusion -- whether it's Baker's inexplicably kitchen-bound working mom, Patton's tyrannical patriarch, or the three Abbott daughters: Alice (Going), Eleanor (Connelly), and Pamela (Tyler). Heralded as the vehicle to launch a new Brat Pack generation, the five young leads fail to deliver on all the advance buzz. Only Connelly as the bad-girl Eleanor creates some excitement when onscreen. The others all seem to lack a certain passion or conviction. Certainly, the unconvincing setting of a perpetually summer-like Illinois where halter tops and spaghetti straps are the daily fashion doesn't help, nor does the inescapable twentysomethingness of these actors who are playing at being teens. Last time out, director Pat O'Connor won much acclaim for his late-Fifties-set, Irish teen tale Circle of Friends. He's unable to make an equally authentic leap onto American soil. Told from younger brother Doug's point of view, Phoenix's voiceover spans the length of the film and winds up making the images that unfold practically redundant. Though Haley, Illinois ain't exactly Dullsville, USA, there's a long stretch of road between sister city Peyton Place and Haley.
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