INVENTING THE ABBOTTS is a nice period piece that doesn't
reach too far back into the past. The setting is Haley, Illinois, 1957
and great care was taken to get the look and feel of that time and
The scenery doesn't just set the time and place. It defines a world in
which the movie can take place. In a worse movie, we could see that the
year was 1957, with a vintage car here, a haircut there. INVENTING THE
ABBOTTS instead goes to great lengths to bring us to the world of 1957.
Production Designer Gary Frutkoff deserves credit for making "Illinois,
1957" into a real place and time.
For example, at the high school, the parking lot is full of cars. Not
just a car here or there, but lots of them. One of the characters works
at a gas station. We don't just see the building and then lots of
closeups; the garage is filled with vintage equipment. There are one or
two long shots of wide-open fields or a silo and a barn, which, without
any specific reference, somehow evoke an America of the past.
Set against this backdrop is the story of the Holts and the Abbotts, a
story a bit like Romeo and Juliet. The Holt family (the Montagues, if
you will) is middle class. Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) and his older brother
Jacey (Billy Crudup) live with their mom (Kathy Baker). Their neighbors,
the Abbotts (or the Capulets), are at the pinnacle of Haley society and
they are always throwing some sort of big party for one of the Abbott
There is some unspoken tension between the families, but all the kids
are at least on speaking terms and their paths often cross at the high
school. Jacey starts courting Eleanor Abbott during his last year of
high school. Mr. Abbott frowns on their relationship, and when he learns
the youths have been having sex, he sends Eleanor away.
The tension between the families grows until Jacey is persona non grata
at the Abbott parties.
All of this proves to be very difficult for the youngest siblings, Doug
Holt (our Romeo) and Pamela Abbott (our Juliet). Doug and Pam are not
passionately in love with each other, but they do have a relationship.
When the families start drifting apart because of the behavior of the
older siblings, the fallout lands squarely on the younger siblings, who,
though disappointed, handle the situation with dispassionate
The characters in INVENTING THE ABBOTTS are well defined. Doug and Jacey
look, act, and dress like brothers until each grows up and becomes his
own man. (There is a scene of the two brothers fighting about their
individuality. Each is wearing a white shirt and dark pants, and in all
the commotion, we can't tell which one is which.) Mrs. Holt is one of
the wisest mothers to grace a movie screen. Each of the Abbott girls has
a distinct personality. We can easily see each character's role within
his or her family and how each family fits into the social order of the
The story has as much action as any romantic comedy, but in addition the
plot is advanced by revelations of information that some of the the
characters have always known, but that we the audience (and other
characters) aren't privy to right away. This is a great device for
keeping up a movie's pace and for giving the audience a fresh
perspective on the action and the characters. This technique was used
extremely well in SECRETS & LIES.
There were only a few things I disliked about INVENTING THE ABBOTTS. One
is the title. Much was made of the title; characters hypothesized that
if the Abbotts didn't exist, Jacey would have invented them. This whole
notion felt forced somehow. Jacey was rebellious and sex-driven, but
this story would have been completely different with another family. I
understand the point but it doesn't seem strong enough to make the
Another was that the movie started going in several different directions
near the end. I suppose life was getting more confusing for the
characters, but after a certain point more plot twists and conflict just
get in the way of finishing the story.
I had low expectations for this movie. I anticipated that it was going
to be a gray '50s drama-comedy. Even afterwards, these expectations
color my view of the movie, and I tend to think more about the confused
ending than about the great shots and the subtle comparison to Romeo and
But objectively, I can see that it is well made, well written, and well
designed. Maybe this movie will prove to be just average on a second
viewing, but it does deserve a second viewing.
Copyright © 1997 Marty Mapes