Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Pat O’Connor
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Liv Tyler, Will Patton, Kathy Baker, Billy Crudup, Joanna Going, Jennifer Connelly, Barbara Williams
Running Time: 105 minutes.
For some reason I was expecting Inventing The Abbotts to be a comedy. However, this new film from Pat O’Connor, director of Circle Of Friends, etc, is a rather dark-edged, albeit clichéd, coming of age melodrama set in small town America in the late 1950’s. Adapted from a short story written by Sue Miller (The Good Mother, etc), Inventing The Abbotts deals with a number of complex and gradually evolving relationships as well as exploring the dilemmas of teenage sexuality and adolescent rebellion.
The film’s main narrative thrust centres around the Holts and the Abbotts, two families from different social backgrounds whose changing fortunes and destinies are inextricably linked by the events of the recent past. During the course of three years the secrets and lies that have divided these two families will bubble to the surface in a seething cauldron of sex, lust and deception. The Abbotts are the richest family in Halley, a fictitious small town in Illinois, while the Holts are regarded as poor white trash from the wrong side of the tracks. Doug (Joaquin Phoenix, from To Die For, etc) and Jayce Holt (Billy Crudup, recently seen in Sleepers, etc) also have a strong sense of sibling rivalry that is eventually affected and shaped by their respective involvement with the three Abbott girls. The boys’ widowed mother (Kathy Baker, from Picket Fences, etc) observes quietly from the sidelines, trying to hold the family together as Jayce and Doug make their way through the troubled minefield of adolescence.
Most of the events unfold from the rather naive and innocent perspective of Doug, who thinks he is in love with the Abbott’s younger daughter Pamela (Liv Tyler, from Stealing Beauty, etc). But Doug hasn’t counted on the depth of Jayce’s passionate thirst to avenge himself on the Abbotts for depriving his family of their rightful inheritance, which inevitably drives the two apart. Jayce carries around on his shoulders the weight of past slights, both real and imagined. He is resentful of Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton, from No Way Out, etc), believing that he cheated his father out of the patent which has made him rich, and he also holds him responsible for his father’s death and his mother’s tarnished reputation within the town. Despite their mother’s silent misgivings and the disapproving warnings of Mr Abbott, who is conscious of his family’s status, the two Holt boys remain interested in seducing the Abbott girls.
However, even a powerful and wealthy family like the Abbotts have feet of clay. When the film begins, the Abbotts are staging a lavish party to celebrate the engagement of their eldest daughter Alice (Joanna Going, from Wyatt Earp, etc), but it is soon revealed that this will be a shotgun wedding as she is two months pregnant. Jayce has a passionate and short-lived affair with Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly, from The Rocketeer, etc), much to her father’s disgust, and she is quickly sent away. Irish-born director O’Connor (Cal, A Month In The Country, etc) seems ill at ease with the characters and the small town American setting of this melodrama, and his direction is uncertain, giving the film an uneven pace and clear lack of focus. The pat ending and the rather contrived means of ensuring the ultimate reconciliation between the two Holt brothers is unconvincing and too simplistic, and symptomatic of the film’s overall lack of real substance.
O’Connor has nonetheless assembled a superb cast featuring a number of popular young performers, including Hollywood’s current hot couple Tyler and Phoenix, whose on-screen romance, apparently, has also continued off-screen. Tyler’s sensuous presence alone should be enough to attract a large audience to this fairly disappointing film, although she seems destined to play the dewy eyed teenager forever on the verge of losing her virginity to the wrong man for the wrong reasons. Phoenix follows his recent superb performance opposite Nicole Kidman, delivering another strong and wonderfully complex performance as Doug, an impressionable and rather unaffected youth who is desperately trying to establish his own identity. As the eldest Abbott daughter, Going has little to do. Connelly put the raunch into Mulholland Falls, and her brief presence fulfills much the same purpose here, adding some spice to fairly familiar material.
Despite its ’50’s setting though, Inventing The Abbotts seems surprisingly contemporary in tone, as O’Connor and screen writer Ken Hixon (Grandview USA, etc) suffuse the essentially melodramatic material with plenty of ’90’s style sex. However, the recreation of period detail is otherwise quite good and the film is accompanied by an evocative soundtrack of music from the era.