As retrograde as the beliefs of its elder characters, Jayne Mansfield’s Car offers up 1969-set generational and cultural conflicts—along with lots of father-son tensions—that go nowhere except the most predictable places at the slowest pace possible. Billy Bob Thornton’s return to the director’s chair is a musty period piece that charts the many meaningful things that happen for one Alabama family when its estranged matriarch, having left years earlier for England, dies, and her second family chooses to bring her back to be buried. That’s mighty upsetting for Robert Duvall’s crusty old vet, who’s already busy sparring with his anti-Vietnam hippie son Kevin Bacon, and now must contend with his ex-wife’s second husband, John Hurt, and his two kids, Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connor. To make things even edgier, Hurt and his clan decide to stay with Duvall and his brood, which also includes Katherine LaNasa’s daughter (who’s hot for Stevenson), Robert Patrick’s conservative son (who still seethes over not seeing combat in WWII), and Thornton’s weirdo car enthusiast.
That Thornton’s wartime scars are both figurative and literal—his body is covered in burns, which he at one point decorates with his air force medals—is indicative of the profound obviousness of Jayne Mansfield’s Car, whose title refers to Duvall and company’s shared fascination with, and misplaced appreciation for, violence. When Duvall isn’t going out to gawk at car wrecks—and he and Hurt aren’t going to see the actual vehicle that pin-up icon Mansfield died in—they’re railing against boys who, in one way or another, haven’t lived up to their macho-heroic ideals, be it during battle or afterward. Such clashes between adults and kids, however, play out in the dreariest of manners, not only because this the-times-they-are-a-changin’ counterculture friction has long since been exhausted of any novelty, but because Thornton’s material—replete with lots of dreamy slow-motion sequences, and cross-cutting between various characters—is so dreadfully torpid.
By the time Duvall’s crotchety old paterfamilias accidentally ingests acid and then oh-so-meaningfully rambles on about how he’s lost his “balance” because “everything feels funny… everything’s changing,” the film has devolved into a morass of one-note preaching about shifting societal tides and the dangers—as evidenced by a tacked-on unhappy final scene—of romanticizing death. Characters scream, throw glasses, screw, and strip nude for the self-gratifying viewing pleasure of others, but Jayne Mansfield’s Car never musters up even the faintest trace of Tennessee Williams-style hothouse drama. Rather, it just sits there, in the process dispensing with so much leaden dialogue and half-formed narrative threads that it manages only to bring together lots of fine actors in the beautiful rural southern sunshine.