Everyone has his moment, and more, in the headlights of the plodding Jayne Mansfield’s Car. It’s a pileup of confessional monologues and confrontational encounters, leaving you to wonder whether there’s a story somewhere in all the dramatic wreckage. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the worst offender is director/co-screenwriter/actor Thornton, whose droning delivery can make minutes seem like hours. As Skip, an emotionally damaged World War II naval pilot and the most troubled of the three sons of a hawkish Southern patriarch (Duvall), Thornton gives himself screen time that’s beyond self-indulgent. Case in point: In a scene midway through the film, Skip’s removal of his shirt speaks volumes about the horror he experienced in combat. But rather than relish the shock of this revelation, Thornton undercuts its emotional impact by prolonging the scene until the sympathy he’s created through the simple act of undressing vanishes. Later, when a visibly addled Skip appears out of nowhere with his war medals pinned to his bare chest and attempts to nonchalantly engage his father in a late-night conversation, the movie veers off the road and briefly turns into a grotesquerie fitting of a Carson McCullers’ fever dream.
Set in a small, Alabama town in the late Sixties, Jayne Mansfield’s Car initially positions itself as a clash between American redneck and English middle-class cultures. The premise is contrived: Two estranged families finally meet when the body of the free-spirited wife and mother they shared is returned to her native state for burial. But this sociological collision is quickly muddled by the characters’ clashing political views about war, at a time when the conflict in Vietnam polarized generation against generation. The older veterans glorify military service despite the terrible toll it takes on men, while the younger ones know the folly of romanticizing war all too well. In the end, Thornton and co-screenwriter Tom Epperson’s undisciplined script can’t decide where to steer this movie – is it a dysfunctional family drama, or an anti-war screed? Or is it something in between? Without any discernible direction to travel, the movie coasts for what seems like an eternity. Even the titular Buick Electra turns out to be a disappointing gimmick without purpose.
The handful of redeeming moments in Jayne Mansfield’s Car belong to Duvall in the role of a septuagenarian who finds himself more and more at odds with a changing world. He’s an actor’s actor who rarely makes a false move, even when he’s required to perform an implausible psychedelic freak-out. While Duvall sometimes shows his age here – he frequently sounds like he’s having trouble completing a sentence, though there may be Method in that madness – he’s vibrant and vigorous at other times. Let’s hope this acting giant has a few more movies in him, preferably ones that befit his talents better than Jayne Mansfield’s Car.