Tuesday, 14 February 2012

'Jayne Mansfield's Car' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Set in Alabama in 1969, 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' is a blackly comic film about the failure of each successive generation to learn from the mistakes of the previous one. Here two families from different backgrounds, each with their share of war-scarred men, are brought together by a funeral: an event which basically enables an exploration of the way each character romanticises tragedy - a concept embodied by the wrecked car of ill-fated movie star Jayne Mansfield, which is a local sideshow attraction.

Withdrawn, WWI veteran and traditional southern patriarch Jim Caldwell (a note-perfect performance from Robert Duvall) is saddened when his ex-wife - and mother of his now adult children - dies after years of living in England with her second husband (and fellow Great War veteran) Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt). In spite of long-harboured feelings of bitter resentment towards the man who took his love, Jim invites the Bedford family to come and stay in his home with his children and grandchildren. These include three wildly different sons, all of whom served in WWII.

Director and writer Billy Bob Thornton takes on the role of a decorated navy pilot who finds it easier to relate to machines than people. Robert Patrick is a seemingly uptight guy, whose resents never having seen combat - yet he has subsequently been successful and is head of a nuclear family. Kevin Bacon was also decorated in the war, yet now he is a long-haired hippy protesting Vietnam in the hope that his teenage son doesn't have to go through what he did. Kingsley's son accompanies him to the US - a WWII Japanese prisoner of war. Ray Stevenson is compelling, for once not playing a fun tough guy.

Relatively free of southern clichés, the film pokes affectionate fun at the Caldwell's occasionally tacky manner (as seen by the stuffy Bedfords) without being patronising or mean about the characters. Perhaps it's a little long and unfocused, with some characters (like Frances O'Connor's likeable Camilla) disappearing for long stretches. Yet overall it's warm and fun with moments of effecting tragedy all in service of a laudable anti-war message.

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