Blu-ray Review: Jayne Mansfield's Car (2012)

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When the grown children of the British man their mother left their American father for come face-to-face with the now-adult children she left behind for the purpose of returning her body for burial in her Alabama home, there’s a culture clash of epic proportions as sparks fly between the two families.

Very aware that despite meeting one another in the event of a death that nothing is black and white, screenwriter/director/star Billy Bob Thornton and his longtime co-writer Tom Epperson soak up the several shades of fascination that initially color the first encounter of such a large group of characters.

Moving from the green envy shown by two patriarchs that never wanted to look one another in the eye to the surprisingly humorous red-hot lust that crops up between unrelated foreign counterparts as bored adults find themselves intrigued by something altogether new, as a writer as well as a director Thornton paints a vibrant portrait of the madness that ensues.

From backhanded compliments to awkward jokes, stereotypical references and generalizations galore about the way each live their life on opposite sides of the pond, their detailed script captures all the complexities of an extended group of people all trying to come to terms with what this newfound sense of family means to them.

In doing so, he revisits some of the same themes, character traits and narrative obsessions he’s visited earlier in his career in this complex – if overly ambitious – awkwardly told tale of two families who never imagined they’d cross paths that are brought together by a character the audience never even gets a chance to meet.


And in his return to the director’s chair for this very southern saga, Billy Bob Thornton makes the most of not just its place but also its time period of 1969.

For even though it’s the deceased shared matriarch that serves as the link between all of the characters onscreen, the film is far more concerned with the links the individuals share as fathers and sons, as Jayne at times feels as though it were a Tennessee Williams meets Faulkner masculine-centric sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s mama’s boy saga, Sons and Lovers.

It’s just a shame that he didn’t ditch all the extraneous stuff and drive the tale of fathers and sons he was clearly more interested in exploring into a completely different project altogether.

Filled with a wandering sensibility, Jayne Mansfield’s Car has a preoccupation with movement – never staying on one character or idea too long – making the film play more like a collection of scenes rather than a work with a clear narrative through-line as if this Car had no idea where it wanted to go.

While capable of some sudden bursts of brilliance in the form of mesmerizing monologues delivered by its amazing male cast members, these moments are far too fleeting when compared to the overall running time of the 122 minute movie.

Likewise, the superlative near-soliloquies Thornton and Epperson have written feel more like tourist destinations along the way of a much larger journey the film is taking, with each one inviting our awe yet never quite managing to move easily back into a far too distracted screenplay. And given the high quality of the speeches, it isn’t overly long into Jayne that you realized how much better the script would’ve been reconfigured for the stage after all.


Playing yet another variation of a mentally challenged, somewhat broken man who – despite having been a war hero – speaks uninhibitedly with a childlike sense of understanding and penchant for non sequiturs, Thornton is told by the bewildered, beautiful Brit embodied by Frances O’Connor that his “thoughts are so random.”

Attracted to her accent, which in itself echoes Sling Blade’s famous “I like the way you talk” bonding moment, Thornton agrees, proudly telling her, “yeah, I’m a thinker,” before moving on to numerous other topics he initiates and abandons one after the other. And that in a nutshell is Mansfield’s greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength.

Simply put, it has way too many ideas and it wants to tell you all of them and while as observed in the aforementioned speeches, it’s a pleasure to listen then, unfortunately, that only makes up a fraction of an altogether haphazard film.


Although he fills the screen with an Altman worthy cast of characters, quite tragically the men shine and the women are essentially turned into audience surrogates – turning up here or there so that the men have someone to talk to (or more specifically at) while encouraging them to share.

While O’Connor steals one of her biggest scenes away from Thornton in a nice play on the male gaze – giving in to his wish to recite something naked for his pleasure and taking far more joy in it than one would expect, unfortunately, the stellar actresses have little to do than lend a sympathetic ear.

Switching gears from his Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets A Family Thing paradigm by focusing not on the matriarch and her families but rather on the relationships the two patriarchs have with their sons, Jayne becomes a tale of history repeating itself.


Cleverly using a period film to address the endless cycle of war by way of World War I vet patriarchs, their World War II vet sons as well as the threat of the draft effecting the grandsons, Thornton focuses on the way that war (and its after effects) not only linger but are passed down through the generations like blood type and eye color.

Admirably resisting the urge to make it 100% pro or anti-war, Thornton lets each veteran tell their own tale, reflecting not only on their experience but their reasons for fighting along with regrets and triumphs, while comparing their scars both internal and external.


In fact, Jayne Mansfield’s Car is so war-focused that at times it felt like all of the other sequences may have been plugged in later from other drafts of other screenplays Thornton and Epperson had laying around.

And honestly, even though it opens one way, Mansfield is at its most compelling when dealing with this subject and at its least when trying to weave in the threads of all the other subplots and topics it introduces into the work including the too-on-the-nose symbolism-heavy one that generated the film’s title.

Likewise by wrapping all of these plots up in a strange accidental LSD trip that not only rings false but also somehow turns Southern patriarch Robert Duvall into a superior father, it becomes painfully obvious how much better the film would’ve been if a handful of characters would’ve been axed along with several subplots in order to make the rest of it more authentic and appealing.


Although Jayne is augmented by the power of its cast whose fiery performances manage to fuel our interest regardless of the film’s at times overwhelmingly disappointing flaws, against all odds Thornton’s modern day theater company and approach keeps us watching despite the number of times it loses direction along the way.

When it stays true to its course of mapping out the way that war – much like the basic familial relationships of parent and child – transcends culture, countries, times and languages, Jayne Mansfield’s Car proves that the destination will never be as important as the trip itself.


Given a beautiful transfer to 1080 pixel blu-ray high definition complete with Dolby True HD sound and subtitles for the hearing impaired and viewers who simply want to soak up the scripters’ rich ear for language, Jayne Mansfield’s Car makes its way to disc with a behind-the-scenes featurette in its home entertainment debut.

Though Thornton ultimately navigates similar terrain he’s traveled down in films of the past – even after you’ve forgotten the name of the film, you’re certain to recall some of this picture’s most memorable scenes which will stay with you long after it ends.     

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